‘Long way to go’: Snowpack off to great start amid severe drought

Second from the right, Sean de Guzman Chief of the California Department of Water Resources Snow Surveys and Water Supply Forecasting Section, Andy Reising, right, and Anthony Burdock left, both California Department of Water Resources Engineers in the Snow Surveys and Water Supply Forecasting Unit, work the measurement phase of the first media snow survey of the 2023 season, as California Department of Water Resources Director Karla Nemeth watches the survey at the Phillips Station.
Provided/Kenneth James/California Department of Water Resources

SOUTH LAKE TAHOE, Calif. — The first Sierra snowpack survey of the season on Tuesday showed that California is way above average, but officials caution that last year was also well above average at the beginning of the year before three record months of dry weather resulted in one of the smallest packs on record.

The Department of Water Resources conducted the survey at Phillips Station, located near the entrance to Sierra-at-Tahoe, and discovered the snowpack is at 177% for the location and  is at 174% of the historical average for this year, an impressive amount due to a stormy December. The snow there was at a depth of 55.5 inches — enough to store 17.5 inches of water.

More than 2 feet of snow is possible through Friday according to the National Weather Service and more storm systems are lining up into next week.

The massive snowpack is giving officials hope for a wet winter the state so desperately needs.

“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.”

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

This January’s results are similar to results in 2013 and 2022 when the Jan. 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 (Sept. 30). 

“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.”

The past three years in California have been the driest ever recorded, dating back to 1986. State officials have severely limited water deliveries to farmers while Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom has urged residents and businesses to conserve water.

Roughly a third of California’s water supply comes from melting snow in the Northern California mountains. About 75% of California’s rain and snow comes from the watersheds north of Sacramento. But about 80% of the state’s water demand comes from Southern California, where most of the people live.

Deep snow has blanketed the meadow where the first media snow survey of the 2023 season was held on Tuesday at Phillips Station.
Provided/Kenneth James/California Department of Water Resources

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