Sierra Nevada levels reveal a “pretty phenomenal snowpack”

Photo credit: Dale Kolke, CA Dept of Water Resources

In stark contrast with the first snow survey of the year on Jan. 3, the season’s last snow reading on March 30 revealed levels nearly three times higher with the Sierra Snowpack measuring an average 94 inches deep. With a statewide snowpack of 164 percent of the historic average, California’s current water supply outlook has dramatically improved.

On Friday, March 31, Governor Brown declared an end to California’s historic drought, lifting emergency orders regulating citizens’ water-use during the state’s driest four-year period on record. “This drought emergency is over, but the next drought could be around the corner,” Governor Brown said in a statement. “Conservation must remain a way of life.” The governor maintained certain prohibitions on wasteful practices such as watering during or after rainfall, hosing off sidewalks and irrigating ornamental turf on public street medians. The state is continuing efforts to establish long-term water conservation measures.

A series of atmospheric rivers during the months of January and February brought record precipitation cold enough to significantly blanket the Sierra Nevada mountains in snow from the north to the south end of the mountain range. Two years ago when snow survey chief Frank Gehrke trekked out to do the survey he was standing in a dusty field of grass.  Although our state may be on track to be one of the wettest winters in history, Gehrke has said of snow levels, “It’s not the record. . .. but it’s still a pretty phenomenal snowpack.” According to the California Department of Water Resources, record snowpack levels have reached almost 250 percent of historical average during the El Niño winter of 1982-83.

The last snow survey of the season is the most important because on average the Sierra Nevada has generally reached its greatest depth and doesn’t see much more snowfall after April 1. On Thursday, March 30, readings at Phillips Station revealed a snow depth of 94.4 inches with a snow-water content of 46.1 inches representing 183 percent of the long-term average for late March.

Sierra Nevada – Statewide Summary Jan 3 Feb 1 Mar 1 Mar 30
Number of Stations Reporting 104 101 99 96
Average Snow Water Equivalent 7.3” 30.5” 45.4” 45.8”
Percent of April 1 Average 25% 108% 162% 164%
Percent of Normal for this time of year 67% 174% 184% 164%
Source:  California Department of Water Resources

The snow courses measured throughout the mountain range during the season provide a comprehensive snapshot of the state’s frozen reservoir.  However, some areas of California are still experiencing the effects of the drought, and it’s going to take much more than a historically wet water year to replenish groundwater in other areas of the state such as the Fresno, Kings, Tulare and Tuolumne counties in the Central Valley.

And yet while the last snow survey of the year has been measured, it is possible the Sierra Nevada could see more arrive in the coming weeks. Forecasts initially estimate storms throughout April that may be cold enough to deliver snow.

This year’s already healthy snowpack means extra water becomes available in the summer to quench thirsty crops, and leaves us looking good for water storage totals and summer recreation activity on state lakes and rivers.

Our California climate is the most variable of any state in the nation. The California Department of Water Resources reports that historically, conditions swing from drought to flood and back to drought. As climate change continues to drive up average temperatures, more precipitation will fall as rain, but most likely not reach the Sierra Nevada to be stored as snow.  The runoff will flow into waterways and reservoirs continuing to boost supplies that will eventually feed into our local water supplies.

Per the governor’s press release, going forward, conservation must be a way of life for Californians. To help prepare for future extremes, we need to continue to practice and promote good water saving habits, and learn new ways to save water daily.

Check out these links for helpful tips, workshops, rebate programs and resources to help you incorporate conservation into your daily life.

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