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New water year off to a good start, but two dry years behind and La Niña ahead are not helping

Water and weather professionals in Bakersfield and beyond tend to be cautious about making predictions regarding any new water year.

And this year is no different.

The 2021-22 water year began last month, on Oct. 1, and anything can happen, water watchers say.

However, this year we may be walking up to the plate with one strike, maybe two. And here’s why.

The water level at Isabella Lake is already low — and long-term weather models suggest a drier than normal year.

On Monday, the water level in the lake stood at 50,712 acre feet, or 9 percent of capacity. Last year at this time, the lake was well below average as well, at 17 percent.

In most (wetter) years, the reservoir is drawn down to about 30 percent by Nov. 1 each year and maintained at or below that level until Feb. 1 when snowmelt runoff predictions become available. This seasonal drawdown prepares the lake for rain and the expected spring snowmelt.

The water that remains in the lake during this three-month period is called “winter carryover.”

There have been exceptions made in some years for more winter carryover. But under no circumstances has it been allowed to exceed 245,000 acre-feet, or 43 percent of capacity.

This year, water levels are so low, no one is remotely worried about having too much winter carryover.

One encouraging observation is that the lake level is not appreciably lower than it was a month ago, and on Monday, there was slightly more water flowing into the lake than being released at the dam for downstream use.

According to the Kern River Snow and Water Report, a compilation of various government agency reports long provided by the nonprofit Keepers of the Kern, snow sensor stations in the Kern River Basin early this week showed an average of 0.4 inches of snow water equivalent measurements, with six of seven stations reporting.

In the water year that began Oct. 1, precipitation in the Kern River basin is well above average. That’s true of Bakersfield as well, which received nearly one inch when the atmospheric river blew through town with plenty of thunder and lightning.

But the above-average number is an anomaly.

“We had an early-season storm about eight days ago that dropped a lot of water,” said Andy Bollenbacher, a meteorologist at the National Weather Service’s Hanford station.

“It’s a good start,” he said. “But we have two years of drought behind that.”

And we remain well below normal when looking at year-to-date rain totals, he said.

Strike 2 may be La Niña, an oceanic and atmospheric phenomenon that is the colder counterpart of the El Niño pattern. The likelihood is that the La Niña pattern will continue into the crucial December through February period, historically the wettest three months of the year.

“Sea surface temperatures in the eastern Pacific have been getting even cooler,” Bollenbacher said, solidifying weather models indicating a drier La Niña year.

“They test these sea surface temperatures in about five different segments,” he said. “The long-term model favors a drier year.”

Reporter Steven Mayer can be reached at 661-395-7353. Follow him on Facebook and on Twitter: @semayerTBC.