After three years of drought, California is beginning 2023 with more snow on the ground than at any start to a year in a decade. State water officials trekked into the Sierra Nevada to conduct the first snow survey of the winter season on Tuesday, reporting 174% of average statewide snowpack for the date.
As the new year begins, California’s Sierra is closing in on the second-largest snowpack we’ve seen at this time of year in the last two decades, with more snow expected to pummel the mountain range in the coming days. But here’s why it’s far too soon to declare an end to the drought: Last year, we started 2022 with a similar bounty — and then ended the snow season way, way, way below normal.
Reporters who slog through a meadow near Lake Tahoe next week for California’s first manual snow survey of the season will find copious amounts of snow. The state Department of Water Resources’ electronic readings on Dec. 29 showed a statewide snowpack at 156% of normal as a persistent parade of storm clouds has pelted the West Coast in December.
Eight of the top 10 warmest years on record occurred in the last decade. The snowline where rain turns to powder continues to move uphill. The dry season is longer than ever as wildfires ravage forests and communities. It’s a bleak outlook for the state of the Sierra Nevada snowpack, not to mention our planet as a whole.
A storm blanketed the Sierra Nevada in heavy snow and soaked much of California with rain, bringing a wet start of winter weather after three years of record drought. The storm brought 3 to 4 feet of fresh snow in parts of the Sierra Nevada over the weekend. From the San Francisco Bay Area to Southern California, between 1 inch and 4 inches of rain fell in many areas.
So far, things are going well for Northern California heading into what is, on average, the busiest part of the rain and snow season. As of Monday morning, many locations around the region are reporting above-average rainfall totals since the water year began on Oct. 1. Downtown Sacramento has had close to 4 inches as of the most recent observation on Sunday.
The winter storm that dropped rain across the Bay Area dumped snow on the Sierras and ski resorts across Tahoe. Heavy snow and slick roads also made for dangerous driving conditions but the precipitation is a boon for California’s water supply. Building on gains during a storm in early November, this latest storm brought statewide snowpack up to 106% of normal for December 1, according to the California Department of Water Resources.
Winter whiplash has hit California and the West. Doused in epic snow and rain in December, the region has just experienced one of the driest Januaries on record in many locations, and there are no storms in sight for at least the first half of February.
The weeks-long dry spell, in the midst of what should be the wettest two months of the year, is dashing hopes of meaningful drought recovery this winter. Water-year surpluses are sliding into deficits, and fire danger is on the rise in California. The reversal may soon emerge in drought maps.