El Niño not enough to end California drought; snowfall helps fill northern California reservoirs
El Niño wasn’t enough to break a string of Sierra Nevada winters seeing subpar snowfall.
Although the northern Sierra received more snow than the southern half this winter, California water watchers have found the entirety of the mountain range’s snowpack contains only 87 percent of its average water content for March 30.
“While for many parts of the state there will be both significant gains in both reservoir storage and stream flow, the effects of previous dry years will remain for now,” said Frank Gehrke, chief of the California Cooperative Snow Surveys Program, during Wednesday snowpack measurements taken at Phillips, near the entrance to Sierra-at-Tahoe Resort.
Gehrke’s survey team measured 58.4 inches of snow at the site containing the equivalent of 26 inches of water, 97 percent of the long-term average for Phillips, according to the California Department of Water Resources. The site is one of more than 220 snow courses measured to determine the water content in the Sierra snowpack, which supplies about 30 percent of the state’s fresh water.
“Electronic readings of northern Sierra Nevada snow conditions found 28.1 inches of water content (97 percent of average for March 30), 25.2 inches in the central region (88 percent of average) and 19.3 inches in the southern region (72 percent of average),” according to the California Department of Water Resources.
Readings from the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service’s eight SNOTEL sites around the Lake Tahoe Basin showed an average of 116 percent year-to-date water content in the snowpack on Wednesday, with the Heavenly Valley SNOTEL site showing 134 percent of average.
George Kostyrko of the State Water Board told the Associated Press that officials will consider the difference in precipitation between northern and southern California when setting new water conservation targets in California.
“Rainfall in the north has benefited the large reservoirs there,” according to the California Department of Water Resources. “Shasta, Oroville and Folsom reservoirs all now store more water than their March 25 historical average, but the lack of rain in the south has resulted in below-average storage in almost all reservoirs there.”
Wednesday’s statewide readings are an improvement over last year, when the water content in the Sierra Nevada was at just 5 percent of the historic average at this point in the year, but this winter’s precipitation hasn’t been enough to end four years of drought.
“Although this is the wettest year since the drought began in 2012, one somewhat improved season does not compensate for four prior years of drought,” according to a recent announcement from the California Department of Water Resources. “Ending a drought means having enough precipitation and runoff throughout the state to mitigate the impacts we’ve experienced. Water year 2016 doesn’t get us there.”
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