For many regions of California, 2013 ended as the driest year in recorded history. That trend has continued into 2014, prompting Gov. Jerry Brown to declare a drought state of emergency in January of this year.
At the beginning of the year, water officials said that the water content in the statewide snowpack — which provides roughly one-third of water used for cities and farms as it melts during the spring months — was about 20% of normal for that time of year.
To illustrate the severity of California’s drought, the water department released a comparison photo of Folsom reservoir near Sacramento on July 20, 2011 — when the lake was at 97% capacity — and Jan. 16, 2014 — when the lake was at just 17% capacity.
The side-by-side images sparked criticism for comparing a summertime photo (after the snow in the Sierra mountains had melted and filled up the reservoirs) with one taken during the winter (before the snow had melted and run off into creeks and rivers).
“If we had had a photograph of Folsom Lake taken on Jan. 16, 2011, the comparison would have appeared more legitimate,” Doug Carlson, a spokesman for the California Department of Water Resources, said in an email, but defended the combination photograph “because they depict what current conditions look like compared to 100% capacity.”
“The side-by-side photos are effective and legitimate in their own right,” Carlson said.
Indeed, what’s important is that the lack of precipitation, which follows two dry years, has left many of the state’s major reservoirs far below normal levels that have been recorded this century.
On Jan. 16, 2014, Folsom Lake was only filled to 35% of its historical average for that date. Since 1988, the only Jan. 16 reading that was below this year’s was in 1991, when the lake was at 16% of total water storage. Between 2000 and 2013, the average for the per cent of capacity storage on Jan. 19 was 44%, according to Carlson.
Going into October, which marks the beginning of California’s wet season, statewide reservoir storage was roughly 75% of the average for this time of year, according to the water resources agency.
Below you can see the current conditions of California’s major reservoirs compared to the historical average for Feb 27. Notice how recent rain storms have provided some relief since January, helping to boost Folsom Lake to 30% of its total capacity. But all reservoirs are still in the red compared to what’s normal for this date.
And here are more photos that give a general impression of what a full lake looks like compared to this year.
On Jan. 16, 2014, Lake Oroville was at 36% of its total capacity, representing 57% of its historical average for that date.
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