The only answer to the question of when the drought will end is that there's no sure answer.

2015 will be off to a dry start, as a ridge of high pressure will keep most storms away from the area over the next two weeks, but the three-month forecast from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is indicating above-average precipitation.

And while the reservoirs are slightly higher than this time last year, a substantial deficit remains, meaning that the hopes of ending the drought in 2015 hinge upon an extraordinary, but not unprecedented, series of storms.

"It took several years to create this drought, so it will likely take more than one year to get out of it," said Curt Aikens, general manager of the Yuba County Water Agency. "The bottom line is it will likely be early April before we know if we are out of the drought or not."

A dry start to January is not ideal, as it's usually the month where Northern California gets the most precipitation, said Holly Osborne, a forecaster with the National Weather Service.

There are, however, signs that a weak El Niño could head to California, which means that Northern California will get its precipitation a little later in the season, Osborne said. While it's impossible to say with certainty whether the drought will end or continue, Osborne said signs are suggesting it's less likely the drought will end in 2015.

The rough estimate is that it will take 150 percent of average rainfall to end the drought, Aikens said.

December hit that target, with rainfall 179 percent of normal measured at Colgate Powerhouse. But the runoff into New Bullards Bar reservoir was only about half of what was expected for that amount of precipitation, and the snowpack is near 50 percent of the average, Aikens said.

"The reduced runoff is due to low soil moisture content that sucked up the water like a sponge," Aikens said.

The water agency is operating New Bullards Bar for maximum conservation, due to low storage. Power generation is being minimized, and the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission granted several flow deviation requests that will allow the agency to keep the flows into the lower Yuba River around 550 cubic feet per second.

A requirement to set flows at 1,000 cfs from January 1-15 has been eliminated.

Storage at New Bullards Bar is currently about 483,000 acre-feet, or 34 percent of usable capacity. While low, the level is up considerably from a low of 362,000 acre-feet on November 26, which was only 18 percent of usable capacity.

CONTACT reporter Andrew Creasey at 749-4780.

Reservoirs still low

The major reservoirs in Northern California are below historical averages, but they are above the levels from 2014, which is cause for cautious optimism for some northern state water contractors.

Lake Oroville sits at 1.3 million acre-feet, or 38 percent of capacity. Last year, the reservoir held 1.2 million acre-feet.

Lake Shasta currently holds 1.8 million acre-feet, up from 1.6 million last year.

On the positive side, the Shasta watershed has already exceeded its precipitation total from the last water year, which ran from Oct. 1, 2013, to Sept. 30, 2014, said Jeff Sutton, general manager of the Tehama-Colusa Canal Authority.

About 33.5 inches of precipitation fell on the watershed in the 2013-14 water year. So far this year, 33.8 inches have been measured.

"However, by no means does this mean the drought is over," Sutton said. "Three years of dry hydrology has left the reservoirs at very low levels, and the aquifers have been overtaxed. We've got a long way to go."

In a normal year, the watershed typically receives about 60 inches of precipitation.

"With current forecasts showing normal to above-normal precipitation, there's still plenty of time for good things to happen," Sutton said. "We hope for the best while continuing to prepare for the worst."

Sutton said junior water rights holders on the Sacramento River will likely see cutbacks in their 2015 water deliveries. But if total inflow into Lake Shasta approaches 4 million acre-feet, senior water contractors could see full allocations. In 2014, senior contractors, also called settlement contractors, received a 75 percent allocation.

Sutton said that he hopes to avoid needing water transfers between Northern California water users but added water transfer will likely be needed by water users south of the delta.

"We're preparing the documents now, if that's the case," Sutton said. "We learned a lot from last year's experience. Hopefully we're ahead of the curve. Mother Nature has treated us a little better this year, and hopefully that continues."

Farmers will still need groundwater

Without increases in snowpack or rainfall, farmers will likely have to continue to rely on groundwater in 2015, according to one Sutter County walnut grower.

Mat Conant, who sits on the board of the South Sutter Water District, said he is concerned about the lack of rain forecast in the first few weeks of January.

"We were off to a great start in November and December; then it hit the skids," Conant said. "Growers could have to go back to relying on well water again, which is not good, but it's what we have to do."

Conant said the wells in the South Sutter Water District have recovered adequately.

"But we can't do this forever, relying on well water year after year," Conant said. "We need a significant snowpack, which isn't there right now."

Snowpack in the Northern Sierra and Trinity mountains is 53 percent of normal as of January 2. In the Central Sierras, it is 40 percent of normal. Statewide, snowpack is 46 percent of normal and 17 percent of the April 1 average.

— Andrew Creasey

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