Sierra snowpack lagging but surprises at Phillips Station


SOUTH LAKE TAHOE, Calif. — The first snowpack survey of the season near South Lake Tahoe surprised state officials.

California Department of Water Resources personnel on Wednesday reported the snowpack to be at 93% of normal for the time of year at Phillips Station, near Sierra-at-Tahoe, but the state average is only 52%.

Sean de Guzman, chief of DWR’s snow survey and forecasting, conducted the measurement and said the numbers are “a little bit higher” than what they have been seeing based on the automated snow sensory network, which is made up of about 130 different sensors placed throughout California.

The snow depth measurement is 30.5 inches and the snow water content is 10.5 inches.

Sean de Guzman, chief of the California Department of Water Resources Snow Surveys and Water Supply Forecasting Section, conducts the first media snow survey of the 2021 season at Phillips Station, near Sierra-at-Tahoe.
Kelly M. Grow / California Department of Water Resources

Phillips Station is just one of the 260 different snow courses across the Sierra Nevada that DWR manually (or electronically) collects data in winter and spring. The data collected is critical for water managers to accurately allocate water throughout the state.

Surveys have been conducted at Phillips Station since 1941.

Earlier this year, DWR performed the survey Jan. 2 at Phillips Station and showed the snowpack was 97% of normal. That pack had a depth of 33.5 inches and snow water equivalent of 11 inches.

“The extremely dry fall has only exacerbated what has been an already unprecedented wildfire season,” said de Guzman. “We will definitely see the impacts of those wildfires on our snowpack.”

Impacts include snow retention being potentially impacted due to loss of tree canopy, increase of snow melt rates as well as reduced percolation due to severely burned soils.

Sean de Guzman (right), chief of the California Department of Water Resources Snow Surveys and Water Supply Forecasting Section, and Jeremy Hill, DWR water resources engineer, conduct the first media snow survey.
Kelly M. Grow / California Department of Water Resources

The Sierra had one of the driest October and November periods on record. The Southern Sierra suffered the seventh driest months as well this year.

The Sierra snowpack supplies 30% of water supply for the state.

The snowpack is often referred to as California’s “frozen reservoir” for its ability to hold water content. As the snow melts, water that doesn’t get absorbed into the ground, which is called “runoff,” will run down into mountain streams, which feed rivers, aqueducts and reservoirs. The aqueducts and reservoirs are where water can be stored for use throughout the dry season.

“It remains critical that all Californians continue to make water conservation a way of life,” de Guzman said. “California continues to experience evidence of climate change and climate variation.”

However, de Guzman says two of the historically wettest months, January and February, still remain.

He says that it’s not uncommon for a large portion of the snowpack to come from a few heavy storms. He made a point to say that despite the year starting out dry, it doesn’t exactly indicate a dry season and latest weather models are hinting at a wetter January in the first couple weeks.

“The snow survey results reflect California’s dry start to the water year and provide an important reminder that our state’s variable weather conditions are made more extreme by climate change,” said DWR Director Karla Nemeth in a press release. “We still have several months left to bring us up to average, but we should prepare now for extended dry conditions. The department, along with other state agencies and local water districts, is prepared to support communities should conditions remain dry.”

The next survey is tentatively set for Feb. 2.

Guzman addresses the media after the first media snow survey of the 2021 season at Phillips Station.
Kelly M. Grow / California Department of Water Resources

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