Not dire straits for Carson City — yet
April 7, 2015
Drought dragging on is raising dire prospects, but Carson City's water supplies exceed others in this region and in neighboring California.
"We are in a bit better shape than are people in surrounding counties or people in California," said City Manager Nick Marano.
"We do need to conserve," he added quickly, a comment with which Mayor Robert Crowell and other officials heartily agree. Crowell says despite the city's relatively sound comparative supplies, no one knows when the four-year drought will end. So a strong conservation commitment, he said, amounts to a hedge against potential water shortages for drinking and other, non-potable needs.
His counsel echoes concerns of water experts, people who know drought dragoons people living in the valley because of what didn't come down from the mountain.
"It's pretty dire," said Ed James, general manager at the Carson Water Subconservancy based in Carson City. "We don't know if we're in the fourth year of a four-year drought or the fourth year of a 20-year drought."
James, who runs a multi-county water planning agency, points to earlier and April 1 Sierra Nevada snowpack and snow melt readings, which are low to record low as measured at various locations. Depleted snowmelt supplies are what caused California Gov. Jerry Brown to put stringent water conservation restrictions in place for that state to the west.
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"We're at the lowest on record," James said, noting both California's citing of a 6 percent water content in the scant Sierra Nevada snowpack and the fact runoff already has peaked on both sides of the range. He indicates all factors he has assessed point to his "dire" comment perhaps being an understatement regarding such things as Carson River flow. He called the overall situation the "worst ever" in 100 years of keeping records.
Statistics he cited included a 39 percent water content in the snowpack of 2007 and a 25 percent water content last year, which also was the level for the drought year of 1977, compared with this year's 6 percent.
He said snowpack, the underpinning of runoff supplies, in the past headed the other direction due to winter and early spring snows. But absence of sufficient storms of late leaves ranchers or farmers, for example, significantly shortchanged on water.
James said snowpack elevations have moved higher, meaning there's less runoff when precipitation takes the form of rain rather than snow below those levels. Consequently, he said, runoff looks like a comparative trickle. Even before the April 1 measurement, his concern about runoff was obvious.
"I believe we've already seen the peak past the Carson City gauge," James said a week before the April 1 measuring date, the date that prompted California's governor and officials in some Nevada communities to take action.
Brown put into place a California executive order aimed at cutting water usage 25 percent in his state. In Northern Nevada, Rusty Jardine, Truckee-Carson Irrigation District project manager, said he has little choice but to alter the district's water season with the likelihood it's going to be halted in the Truckee division on April 14.
Signs of the drought's ongoing regional impact aren't just getting officials' attention, but are on display for residents and tourists alike with Lake Tahoe ebbing and Washoe Lake receding just north of Carson City. Washoe Lake went from large, shallow status years ago to near pond-size this year. In addition, no one knows when things will change for the better.
"We don't have the scientific understanding to be able to make that projection," said Chris Smallcomb, National Weather Service meteorologist in Reno. "So unfortunately we won't know when we're out of it until we're out of it."
That means the relatively sound situation in Nevada's capital community has Public Works Director Darren Schulz promising nothing beyond this year on such things as rules for watering yards. It is now done, based on a city ordinance, on alternate days, with odd and even-numbered residences along city streets taking turns. Schulz sees that continuing for now without more stringent oversight.
But he's just talking this summer only, making no projections for 2016 "if the drought continues." Utility Manager David Bruketta agreed, the latter assessing water for lawns and drinking water. Bruketta and Schulz say there will be a full report on the city's water supply situation at the Board of Supervisors April 16 meeting.
"We're in a good situation right now," Bruketta said last week, comparing Carson City with Reno-Sparks. "We have groundwater supplies."
He said water main work eventually will knit together the city's east and west sides to eventually hook the whole system up with the Quill drinking water treatment plant, and the community has water available as well from north-south connections that bring in Douglas County water due to previous work. "We're not in the same boat as California," he added.
Though the city isn't in that boat, it and the region remain high and dry and officials are pondering the future despite avoiding draconian clamp downs of water usage as extensive as those imposed by Brown's sweeping executive order in that state of 38 million residents next door.
"Its really the whole region," said Smallcomb, the Reno-based meteorologist who serves as warning coordinator at the weather service office there. After stressing there's no way to know when the drought's going to end, he's focused on shorter term 2015 prospects or concerns.
"The exceptional drought that is holding over most of Nevada is going to stay," he said, noting even a spring snow storm or rains heavy enough to bring isolated flash flooding wouldn't make much of a dent in the drought this year.
Smallcomb sounded less concerned about the threat of flash floods than he did about another possible byproduct of continuing dryness. "We could see enhanced chances for wildfires," he said.