Don’t let the snow on the ground fool you—the Eastern Sierra is a very long way from being out of the drought.
It will take about another 20 inches of precipitation—somewhere between 15 and 25 feet of snow—to make up for the last few dry months, according to state data, then another 15 inches in March and April to stay out of a drought.
That’s not impossible.
It’s also not likely, given the laws of statistics. With the state’s two wettest months (January and February) nearly past, California water managers are scrambling to secure enough water for the farms, cattle and millions of citizens in hundreds of cities that need it.
Mammoth, too, would also be scrambling if it were not for a series of wells installed two decades ago against such a drought, according to the town’s water district officials.
“If this was the drought we had in the 70s, we would be out of water,” said Karl Schnadt, Mammoth Community Water District operations manager. “Then, all of our water was surface water (as compared to well water). All of it came from the snowpack, which then drained into Lake Mary, then into Mammoth Creek. If that was the case this past year, we would have been out of water early last year because we are only allowed to draw Lake Mary down to a certain level in order to protect the fishery in Mammoth Creek.
“Now, we have installed wells, and when the snowpack is below average, we turn to those wells to provide all of the town’s water.”
The state requires a certain flow of water in Mammoth creek, enough to keep the creek’s famous trout fishery healthy. The same goes for Lake Mary, he said, where a certain lake level must be maintained.
“Once that trigger is hit, we cannot take any more water from Lake Mary,” he said.
That trigger gets hit most summers, when outdoor irrigation needs explode and Mammoth residents go from using between one and one-and-a-half million gallons of water a day to two to three-and-a-half million gallons a day.
If the winter has been a wet one, the timing of tapping the wells is later in the summer; if has been a dry one, like this past winter of 2012-13, the trigger is hit early and wells sustain the community most or all of the year.
Although Schadt said Mammoth will not run out of water this summer, no matter what happens with the snowpack this year, the three dry years are beginning to take a toll on the well levels.
Schnadt said the water table has declined in some of the wells over the past three years and the water district intends to pay it safe and push conservation before mandatory water restriction for residents are eyed.
“We have asked for a voluntary 10 percent cut back on all water use and we are rewriting our code book right now,” he said.
“There are places where it is unclear, and we want to be sure we have the tools we need if we need them.”
One such tool is a warning system for people or property managers who are using an exorbitant amount of water for outdoor irrigation.
These offenders may get water service reduced or disconnected, with access to all but inside domestic water use cut off—in other words, no irrigation will be allowed.
“That usually gets their attention and people cut back,” he said.
Another tool is not allowing any new planting of lawns this year for new development, or for re-planting sod in areas that property owners might otherwise hope to “green up” after the winter, he said.
Another way the district is playing it safe is to retain some water in Lake Mary in a state called “storage.”
If any of the wells fail due to a pump or other mechanical failures occur, the water district does have access to this stored water, enough to last about 60 days (with no outside irrigation, or 30 days if irrigation is in place).
Unlike many communities in the state, including Bishop and the Owens Valley where three years of ongoing drought have begun to lower the groundwater levels, Mammoth is in no danger of running out of water anytime soon.
Still, Schnadt said this is the worst series of dry years he has ever seen—and he has been in the area for a long time.
“This is why we need snow,” he said. “I’ve been here for 27 years, I’ve seen some bad years. But this year, this is by far the worst.”