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Snow Survey: Good Start but Drought Relief Depends on Coming Months

The California Department of Water Resources first manual snow survey of the season Tuesday at Phillips Station recorded 55.5 inches of snow depth and a snow water equivalent of 17.5 inches, which is 177% of average for the location. The snow water equivalent measures the amount of water contained in the snowpack and is a key component of DWR’s water supply forecast. Statewide the snowpack is 174% of average for this date.

snow survey-Sierra Nevada snowpack-drought-Phillips Station

Snow Survey: Good Start but Drought Relief Depends on Coming Months

The California Department of Water Resources first manual snow survey of the season Tuesday at Phillips Station recorded 55.5 inches of snow depth and a snow water equivalent of 17.5 inches, which is 177% of average for the location. The snow water equivalent measures the amount of water contained in the snowpack and is a key component of DWR’s water supply forecast. Statewide the snowpack is 174% of average for this date.

Survey: December storms delivered big snow totals

California is expected to see continued rain and snow over the next seven days, with the threat of flooding in parts of California. Conditions so far this season have proven to be strikingly similar to last year when California saw some early rainstorms and strong December snow totals only to have the driest January through March on record.

“The significant Sierra snowpack is good news but unfortunately these same storms are bringing flooding to parts of California,” said DWR Director Karla Nemeth. “This is a prime example of the threat of extreme flooding during a prolonged drought as California experiences more swings between wet and dry periods brought on by our changing climate.”

One year ago, the Phillips survey showed the seventh highest January measurements on record for that location. However, those results were followed by three months of extremely dry conditions and by April 1 of last year, the Phillips survey measurements were the third lowest on record.

More telling than a survey at a single location are DWR’s electronic readings from 130 stations placed throughout the state. Measurements indicate that statewide, the snowpack’s snow water equivalent is 17.1 inches, or 174%  of average for January 3.

Opportunities to save more water

“After three consecutive years of drought, the recent series of storms is a good start to the season,” said Jeff Stephenson, water resources manager with the San Diego County Water Authority. “However, we had a similarly strong early winter last year, which did not continue. While the Water Authority and its 24 member agencies have worked and continue to develop diverse water supply sources, there are still opportunities, including rebates, to save more water.”

In San Diego County, watersmartsd.org, provides sources of residential and business rebates, including indoor and outdoor incentives, and free landscape makeover classes. 

Stephenson added that the region has reduced its reliance on imported water supplies, including from the Sacramento-San Joaquin Bay Delta, which means more of that source is available for other parts of California.

Strong start but “a long way to go”

The January 2023 manual snow survey results are similar to results in 2013 and 2022 when the January 1 snowpack was at or above average conditions, only for dry weather to set in and lead to drought conditions by the end of the water year (September 30).

In 2013, the first snow survey of the season also provided promising results after a wet December similar to today’s results. However, the following January and February were exceptionally dry, and the water year ended as the driest on record, contributing to a record-breaking drought. In 2022, record-breaking December snowfall was again followed by the driest January through March period on record.

“Big snow totals are always welcome, but we still have a long way to go before the critical April 1 total,” said DWR’s Snow Surveys and Water Supply Forecasting Unit Manager Sean de Guzman. “It’s always great to be above average this early in the season, but we must be resilient and remember what happened last year. If January through March of 2023 turn out to be similar to last year, we would still end the water year in severe drought with only half of an average year’s snowpack.”

Sierra snowpack supplies 30% of California’s water

On average, the Sierra snowpack supplies about 30% of California’s water needs and is an important factor in determining how DWR manages the state’s water resources. Its natural ability to store water is why the Sierra snowpack is often referred to as California’s “frozen reservoir.” A below-average snowpack impacts water users across the state, putting further stress on the environment and critical groundwater supplies.

Due to these increasing swings from dramatically wet to dry conditions, Governor Newsom’s recently released “California’s Water Supply Strategy, Adapting to a Hotter, Drier Future” calls for investing in new projects and technologies that will modernize how the state manages water.

Current climate research indicates the state will see bigger swings from extreme heat and dry conditions to larger and more powerful storms that deliver temporary large boosts to the state snowpack as well as flood risk.

DWR encourages Californians to visit SaveOurWater.com for water saving tips and information, and to continue to conserve California’s most precious resource, rain or shine. DWR conducts five snow surveys at Phillips Station each winter near the first of each month, January through April and, if necessary, May. The next survey is tentatively scheduled for February 1.

Despite April Rains, California Still Faces Significant Drought Conditions as Summer Nears

The late-season burst of snow and moisture that blanketed Northern California in April helped make a small dent in drought conditions, experts said, but the majority of the state is still far below where it needs to be as it heads toward the hot, dry months of summer.

Several storms arrived weeks after the final snow survey of the season on April 1, in which state officials reported that statewide snowpack had dwindled to just 38% of average for the date after a bone-dry start to the year.

Californians Urged to Save Water as State Faces Dismal Snowpack in Sierra Nevada

California is going into spring with a minuscule amount of snow in the Sierra Nevada, leaving the state in a third year of extreme drought and with depleted reservoirs to draw on during what’s likely to be another hot, parched summer.

The mountain snowpack, as measured by snow sensors across the Sierras, now stands at just 38% of the long-term average.

California Drought Now in Third Year

California officials have urged residents to prepare for a third year of drought and urged people to conserve water.

“With only one month left in California’s wet season and no major storms in the forecast, Californians should plan for a third year of drought conditions,” said California Department of Water Resources Director Karla Nemeth.

Dry Soils And Drought Mean Even Normal Snowpack Can’t Keep Up With Climate Change In The West

Brian Domonkos straps on a pair of cross-country skis and glides through the trees along Mosquito Creek west of Fairplay.

It’s May, but there’s still snow in Colorado’s mountains near the headwaters of the South Platte River.

Domonkos, the Colorado Snow Survey supervisor, gets to work measuring how much snowpack is left from the winter to runoff into streams, rivers and reservoirs this summer.

Sierra Snow Survey Canceled Due to Impacts of Dry Weather, Water Supply Also at Risk

There is dry dirt where water should be at Folsom Lake. A lack of wet weather is taking a toll on the state’s water supply.

Chris Orrock is a spokesperson for the California Department of Water Resources. He said while drought-like conditions are very common for the state, this year is worse than normal, especially considering back-to-back dry winters with little snow and rain.

“In fact, this year is a critically dry year,” Orrock said.

It is so dry, in fact, that DWR canceled Thursday’s snow survey at Phillips Station because there was not enough snow on the ground. Orrock said much of the lower elevation snow is already gone and some of the higher elevation snow is beginning to melt as well.

Opinion: Innovation Needed to Solve State’s Water Challenges

Earlier this month, camera crews once again gathered in the Sierra Nevada to watch a man plunge a pole through the snow. The pole was removed and, following a tense few moments, Californians learned we experienced another dry winter, and we are plunging further into drought. These snowpack surveys are quaint rituals, but they’re also a jarring reminder of how little technological innovation has occurred in California’s water sector.  The case for action is clear.

California Experiences Fifth Straight Month of Below Average Snow, Precipitation

The Department of Water Resources today conducted the third manual snow survey of the season at Phillips Station. The manual survey recorded 56 inches of snow depth and a snow water equivalent (SWE) of 21 inches, which is 86% of average for this location. The SWE measures the amount of water contained in the snowpack and is a key component of DWR’s water supply forecast.

“As California closes out the fifth consecutive dry month of our water year, absent a series of strong storms in March or April we are going to end with a critically dry year on the heels of last year’s dry conditions,” said DWR Director Karla Nemeth. “With back-to-back dry years, water efficiency and drought preparedness are more important than ever for communities, agriculture and the environment.”

Precipitation Below Average in California

Precipitation is below average in California for the current water year. Despite recent storms that increased the statewide Sierra Nevada snowpack to 70% of average to date, the state is experiencing its second consecutive below average year for rain and snow.