Posts

Sierra Nevada Snowpack: One of the Largest on Record

Following three consecutive years of drought in California, the Sierra Nevada snowpack is one of the most bountiful in more than 40 years. While the snowpack and snow water equivalent is great news for water supply, there are concerns the record snowpack could create flooding issues.

The California Department of Water Resources electronic readings from 130 snow sensors placed throughout the state indicate the statewide Sierra Nevada snowpack’s snow water equivalent is 61.1 inches, or 237% of average for April 3. The snow water equivalent measures the amount of water contained in the snowpack and is a key component of DWR’s water supply forecast.

Sierra Nevada snowpack

This year’s April result from the statewide snow sensor network is higher than any other reading since the snow sensor network was established in the mid-1980s. Before the network was established, the 1983 April 1 statewide summary from manual snow course measurements was 227% of average. The 1952 April 1 statewide summary for snow course measurements was 237% of average.

“This year’s severe storms and flooding is the latest example that California’s climate is becoming more extreme,” said DWR Director Karla Nemeth after the April 3 snow survey at Phillips Station in the Sierra Nevada. Photo: Fred Greaves/California DWR

“California’s climate is becoming more extreme”

“This year’s severe storms and flooding is the latest example that California’s climate is becoming more extreme,” said DWR Director Karla Nemeth. “After the driest three years on record and devastating drought impacts to communities across the state, DWR has rapidly shifted to flood response and forecasting for the upcoming snowmelt. We have provided flood assistance to many communities who just a few months ago were facing severe drought impacts.”

Just as the drought years demonstrated that California’s water system is facing new climate challenges, this year is showing how the state’s flood infrastructure will continue to face climate-driven challenges for moving and storing as much of these flood water as possible.

Sierra Nevada snowpack-snow survey-DWR-

“This year’s result will go down as one of the largest snowpack years on record in California,” said Sean de Guzman, manager of DWR’s Snow Surveys and Water Supply Forecasting Unit. (R-to-L: de Guzman, Jacob Kollen, Water Resources Engineer in Snow Surveys and Water Supply Forecasting Unit, and Jordan Thoennes, Water Resources Engineer in Snow Surveys and Water Supply Forecasting Unit.) Photo: Kenneth James/California DWR

“One of the largest snowpack years on record”

“This year’s result will go down as one of the largest snowpack years on record in California,” said Sean de Guzman, manager of DWR’s Snow Surveys and Water Supply Forecasting Unit. “While 1952’s snow course measurements showed a similar result, there were fewer snow courses at that time, making it difficult to compare to today’s results. Because additional snow courses were added over the years, it is difficult to compare results accurately across the decades with precision, but this year’s snowpack is definitely one of the biggest the state has seen since the 1950s.”

Sierra Nevada-snowpack-April 2023-DWR

Snowpack varies by region

For California’s snow course measurements, only 1952, 1969 and 1983 recorded statewide results above 200% of the April 1 average. While above average across the state this year, snowpack varies considerably by region. The Southern Sierra snowpack is currently 300% of its April 1 average and the Central Sierra is at 237% of its April 1 average. However, the critical Northern Sierra, where the state’s largest surface water reservoirs are located, is at 192% of its April 1 average.

Flooding and spring snowmelt

The size and distribution of this year’s snowpack is also posing severe flood risk to areas of the state, especially the Southern San Joaquin Valley. DWR’s State-Federal Flood Operations Center (FOC) is supporting emergency response in the Tulare Lake Basin and Lower San Joaquin River by providing flood fight specialists to support ongoing flood response activities and by providing longer-term advanced planning activities.

The FOC and DWR’s Snow Surveys and Water Supply Forecasting Unit are helping local agencies plan for the spring snowmelt season by providing hydraulic and hydrologic modeling and snowmelt forecasts specific to the Tulare Lake Basin that are informed by DWR’s snowmelt forecasting tools, including Airborne Snow Observatory (ASO) surveys.

Storms this year have caused impacts across the state including flooding in the community of Pajaro and communities in Sacramento, Tulare, and Merced counties. The FOC has helped Californians by providing over 1.4 million sandbags, over 1 million square feet of plastic sheeting, and over 9,000 feet of reinforcing muscle wall, across the state since January.

State Water Project deliveries increased

On March 24, DWR announced an increase in the forecasted State Water Project deliveries to 75%, up from 35% announced in February, due to the improvement in the state’s water supplies. Governor Gavin Newsom has rolled back some drought emergency provisions that are no longer needed due to improved water conditions, while maintaining other measures that continue building up long-term water resilience and that support regions and communities still facing water supply challenges.

Sierra Nevada Snowpack-April 2023-Reservoir conditions

Water supply challenges

While winter storms have helped the snowpack and reservoirs, groundwater basins are much slower to recover. Many rural areas are still experiencing water supply challenges, especially communities that rely on groundwater supplies which have been depleted due to prolonged drought.

Water conservation ‘a way of life’

Long-term drought conditions in the Colorado River Basin will also continue to impact the water supply for millions of Californians. The state continues to encourage Californians to make water conservation a way of life as more swings between wet and dry conditions will continue in the future. The San Diego County Water Authority and its 24 member agencies provide rebates and programs to encourage water conservation.

Given the size of this year’s snowpack with more snow in the forecast, DWR anticipates conducting a May snow survey at Phillips Station. That is tentatively scheduled for May 1.

Snow Survey-snowpack-DWR-Snowpack above normal-water conservation

California’s Snowpack Shows Huge Gains from Recent Storms

The snow water equivalent of California’s snowpack is 190% of average for March 3, 2023. After three years of drought, the bountiful winter is good news, but a drier future demands more conservation and innovative solutions for water supply in the Southwestern U.S.

The Department of Water Resources on March 3, conducted the third snow survey of the season at Phillips Station in the Sierra Nevada. The manual survey recorded 116.5 inches of snow depth and a snow water equivalent of 41.5 inches, which is 177% of average for the location on March 3. Snow water equivalent measures the amount of water contained in the snowpack and is a key component of DWR’s water supply forecast.

California’s Snowpack

DWR’s electronic readings from 130 snow sensors placed throughout the state indicate the statewide snowpack’s snow water equivalent is 44.7 inches, or 190% of average for this date.

Recent Storms

“Thankfully the recent storms combined with the January atmospheric rivers have contributed to an above-average snowpack that will help fill some of the state’s reservoirs and maximize groundwater recharge efforts. But the benefits vary by region, and the Northern Sierra, home to the state’s largest reservoir Lake Shasta, is lagging behind the rest of the Sierra,” DWR Director Karla Nemeth said. “It will also take more than one good year to begin recovery of the state’s groundwater basins.”

It Will Take More than a Single Wet Year to Recover Groundwater Levels in Some Parts of the State

Although the statewide snowpack is currently just behind the record snow year of 1982-83, the snowpack varies considerably by region. The Southern Sierra snowpack is currently 209 percent of its April 1 average and the Central Sierra is at 175 percent of its April 1 average. However, the critical Northern Sierra, where the state’s largest surface water reservoirs are located, is at 136 percent of its April 1 average. With one month of the traditional wet season remaining, DWR is providing updated runoff forecasts to water managers and is closely monitoring spring runoff scenarios and river flows to ensure the most water supply benefits from this year’s snowpack while balancing the need for flood control.

“The recent storms over the past week broke a month-long dry spell in a dramatic way,” said DWR’s Snow Surveys and Water Supply Forecasting Unit Manager Sean de Guzman. “We are hopeful that we will see more cold storms to add to our snowpack for the next month and help set up a long, slow melt period into spring.”

‘Good News’ but Conservation Remains Critical

“The results of today’s snow survey is good news for the state’s water supply, especially for those parts of the state that rely on snowmelt as their primary source of water,” said San Diego County Water Authority Water Resources Manager Jeff Stephenson. “The above average snowpack levels come after three consecutive years of drought that resulted in below normal water levels at the state’s major reservoirs. For the San Diego region, the recent local storms allow residents and businesses to turn off sprinklers and irrigation for at least several weeks, if not longer. This allows the region to keep more water in local reservoirs for use later in the year.”

California’s Snowpack and a Hotter, Drier Climate

“Despite the recent wet weather and the region’s diverse water supply portfolio, the long-term forecast of a hotter, drier climate, for the Southwest U.S., means that water use efficiency remains a key part of saving our most precious resource, in wet or dry years,” added Stephenson.

Stephenson said that there are rebates and other free services available to residents and businesses of San Diego County that can help conserve water and save money.

Airborne Snow Observatory Surveys

To ensure water supply managers have the most current forecasts of snowpack runoff, DWR is utilizing the best available technology to collect the most accurate snow measurements. DWR’s Snow Surveys and Water Supply Forecasting Unit is utilizing Airborne Snow Observatory (ASO) surveys across 12 of California’s major snow-producing watersheds to collect data on the snowpack’s density, depth, reflectiveness, and other factors down to a 3-meter resolution. These flights, which utilize LiDAR and imaging spectrometer technology, provide DWR with more information on water content than ever before, which is then fed into advanced physically based and spatially explicit models to generate the most accurate water supply runoff forecasts possible. These forecasts are used to develop the Bulletin 120 for forecasted spring run-off to determine water allocation and stream flows for the benefit of the environment.

Groundwater Basins ‘Slower to Recover’ From Drought

While winter storms have helped the snowpack and reservoirs, groundwater basins are much slower to recover. Many rural areas are still experiencing water supply challenges, especially communities that rely on groundwater supplies which have been depleted due to prolonged drought. It will take more than a single wet year for groundwater levels to substantially improve at a statewide scale. Drought impacts also vary by location and drought recovery will need to be evaluated on a regional scale and will depend on local water supply conditions.

On February 13, Governor Newsom issued an Executive Order directing state agencies to review and provide recommendations on the state’s drought response actions by the end of April, including the possibility of terminating specific emergency provisions that are no longer needed, once there is greater clarity about the hydrologic conditions this year.

Save Our Water

Californians should still continue to use water wisely so that we can have a thriving economy, community, and environment. DWR encourages Californians to visit SaveOurWater.com for water saving tips and information as more swings between wet and dry conditions will continue in the future.

DWR conducts five media-oriented 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 April 3.

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.