Dry December Produces Below-Average Snowpack, But Too Early To Draw Conclusions

  • by Will Holbert
  • Jan 3, 2018
  • Water News

Minimal snow was found at the Phillips Station meadow before the start of the first snow survey conducted by the California Department of Water Resources on Jan. 3. Photo by DWR’s Kelly M. Grow

The California Department of Water Resources’ (DWR) manual snow survey conducted today east of Sacramento in the Sierra Nevada found little snowpack, which was predictable after a dry December throughout California. However, DWR representatives also pointed out that it would be premature to draw any firm conclusions from the first snow survey.

Measurements at Phillips Station revealed a snow water equivalent (SWE) of 0.4 inches, 3% of the average SWE of 11.3 inches in early January at Phillips as measured there since 1964. SWE is the depth of water that theoretically would result if the entire snowpack melted instantaneously.

ACWA Executive Director Timothy Quinn said California water managers were well prepared for either excessively dry or wet conditions.

“Every year, a water manager has to be ready for a wide range of activities that can include a heavy surplus, where you’re working to find storage, or shortages where you’re identifying ways to cover them. ACWA member agencies have developed contingency plans to cover that wide range of alternative outcomes,” Quinn said. “This year is looking dry so far, but we have to be ready for most anything – and we are ready.”

California is only a third of the way through the state’s three wettest months said DWR Director Grant Davis, putting the Jan. 3 survey in perspective.

“California’s great weather variability means we can go straight from a dry year to a wet year and back again to dry. That’s why California is focusing on adopting water conservation as a way of life, investing in above- and belowground storage, and improving our infrastructure to protect our clean water supplies against disruptions,” Grant said.

California’s exceptionally high precipitation last winter and spring has resulted in above-average storage in 154 reservoirs tracked by the department. DWR estimates total storage in those reservoirs at the end of December 2017 amounted to 24.1 million acre feet (MAF), or 110% of the 21.9 MAF average for the end of the year. One year ago, those reservoirs held 21.2 million acre-feet (MAF), 97% of average.

End-of-year storage is now the highest since December 2012 (24.3 MAF), which was early in the first of five consecutive water years of drought in California. DWR conducts five media-oriented snow surveys each winter near the first of January, February, March, April, and May. On average, the snowpack supplies about 30% of California’s water needs as it melts in the spring and early summer. The greater the snowpack water content, the greater the likelihood California’s reservoirs will receive ample runoff as the snowpack melts to meet the state’s water demand in the summer and fall.

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