Even after winter storm Triton swept through Tehachapi dumping heavy rain with snow and closing both major highway passes, and two school districts just over a week ago, this year's lower than average rainfall totals are a big concern for California water authorities.
That's because January and February -- normally the wettest months of the year in the state -- broke a record as the driest start to a calendar year since 1921 -- the first year record keeping began.
A total of just 2.3 inches of precipitation fell from Jan. 1 through Feb. 28 according to measurements taken at eight weather stations staggered throughout the northern Sierra.
The numbers are well below the historical average of 17.1 inches and just about 12 percent of normal averages.
The dry conditions have not been limited to the northern Sierra. January and February also produced just .37 inches of rain in the Tehachapi Valley, according to Jeff Barlow a senior forecaster at the National Weather Service in Hanford.
However, Barlow warned that those figures are incomplete, as the data collected by NOAA in February only reflect partial readings.
Still, the total is well below the average rainfall of 4.08 inches during those months, and it's those numbers that have Tehachapi-Cummings County Water District concerned.
"Locally, 35 percent allocation is enough for us to fill our current orders," said John Martin, general manager of the Tehachapi-Cummings County Water District, which delivers water to 36,000 users in the Tehachapi Valley. "If we get less than that, we must recover some of our banked water supply to deliver to customers."
And although Martin noted that the district was blessed with three groundwater basins that has helped them through times such as these, this year does demonstrate the need to bank water in the ground in years when the water is available from the State Water Project (SWP), so that the district is able to recover the water in the dry years.
Currently, the district has more than 16,000 acre-feet of groundwater in storage, most of which is recoverable.
"This is our responsibility because we supply agriculture in the area," Martin said. "But it is also the responsibility of all water providers in the greater Tehachapi area."
What providers are or aren't doing
Tehachapi Cummings County Water District supplies water to five providers in the area, some of which do not have the supply of banked water that the district recommends. So, if there is an interruption in the State Water Project or a serious reduction in the allocation, those providers will have nothing to fall back on, Martin said.
To make sure that providers can keep up with demands even in the dry years, he said the water district has been encouraging water suppliers to bank groundwater equal to a five-year supply of their SWP demand.
And while the City of Tehachapi has banked some groundwater, so far, only Golden Hills Community Service District has accomplished the goal of a five-year supply.
According to GHCSD General Manager Bill Fisher, his district has been banking water for over 20 years.
"I feel it is the responsibility of everyone who pumps water from the Tehachapi Basin to be good stewards and maintain a minimum of five years of banked groundwater," he added.
In 2008, the Golden Hills CSD received an Urban Drought Assistance Grant from the state Department of Water Resources to replace existing flow meters with meters equipped with Automatic Meter Readers (AMR). The AMR units electronically record water use and allow data to be collected for identification of customers who have possible leaks and tampering of meters.
"Through the use of these meters, the district was able to reduce water consumption, reduce costs to its water users and reduce the demand on the Delta and State Water Project," Fisher said.
Meanwhile, Stallion Springs CSD General Manger Mary Beth Garrison said that district is battling the rainfall shortage by promoting water conservation to both their residential and commercial customers, while they continue to work with TCCWD on questions regarding how much water can be banked in the Cummings Valley basin -- where Stallion Springs gets half of its water. (The other half is purchased from the State Water Project.)
Despite Mother Nature leaving California with very little precipitation in the new year, there is still hope, at least for cities like Tehachapi, which is nearing its goal of a five-year supply of banked water.
"For the past few years, the city has been purchasing State Water Project water for groundwater recharge," said the city's utility manager Jon Curry.
On average, the city purchases 200 acre-feet annually for recharge and operationally has been successful in utilizing short-term leasing and carryover water, while simultaneously banking water for future extraction.
"The goal for us would be to have the five-year SWP supply in storage within one to two years," Curry said.
More dry conditionsin forecast
In Tehachapi, the wettest month of the year is March with an average rainfall of 2.36 inches. The month got off to a good start with the snowstorm week before last, but it's been dry since then. Rain is forecast for Wednesday, with a slight chance for Thursday. The forecast beyond that is for more sunny days until the 27th when there is a chance of rain.
California began winter with a bang, as November and December delivered about 200 percent of the average precipitation in the northern Sierra. It was enough to bring reservoir storage above average for that point in the season.
However, the prospect for more torrential rain this winter statewide is not good, as Barlow said NOAA's long-range forecast based on the Climate Prediction Centers outlook, shows that the odds favor more dry conditions across California and the southwest through May.
In the meantime, TCCWD is looking at the possibility of selling off 3,001 acre-feet of its surplus water to the Kern Westside District in an effort to bring in more than $800,000 in revenue, while it seizes the opportunity to sell dry-year water at a premium price.
And while Martin supports the idea, he is cautious and said the current water supply issue begs a closer examination of the transaction.
The measure will be discussed during the water district's board of director's meeting on Wednesday this week. The meeting begins at 4 p.m. at the district headquarters, 22901 Banducci Road.