Late Winter Storms Bolster Snowpack In Sierra, But Statewide Water Content Remains Far Below Average

  • by Will Holbert
  • Apr 2, 2018
  • Water News

Following one of the driest Februaries in California history, late winter storms increased the Sierra Nevada snowpack but were not enough to put the state on track for an average year, according to a California Department of Water Resources release distributed today.

Today’s snow survey by the California Cooperative Snow Surveys Program indicates that water content in the statewide mountain snowpack increased from 23% of the March 1 average to 52% of today’s historical average. The early-April snow survey is the most important for water supply forecasting because the snowpack is normally at its peak before it begins to melt with rising spring temperatures.

ACWA Executive Director Timothy Quinn said that water managers have been prepared for any outcome.

“The latest survey results are relatively encouraging and put us closer to the historical average,” Quinn said. “We were already well prepared for drought conditions, with California water managers highly skilled in contingency planning. That said, uncertainty can lead to overreaction when drought threatens, as happened in California in recent years.  We don’t want that kind of response to dry conditions to become the status quo, which is one more reason that the recent improved hydrologic conditions are good news.”

The snow survey conducted at Phillips Station by Frank Gehrke, chief of the California Cooperative Snow Surveys Program, found a snow water equivalent (SWE) of 12.4 inches, or 49% of average for this time of year as recorded since 1964. SWE is the amount of water contained within the snowpack. The snowpack normally provides about a third of the water for California’s farms and communities as it melts in the spring and summer and fills reservoirs and rivers.

“These snowpack results – while better than they were a few weeks ago – still underscore the need for widespread careful and wise use of our water supplies,” said California Department of Water Resources Director Karla Nemeth. “The only thing predictable about California’s climate is that it’s unpredictable. We need to make our water system more resilient so we’re prepared for the extreme fluctuations in our water system, especially in the face of climate change.”

Gehrke said that despite recent storms, today’s snow survey showed that California is still playing catch-up when it comes to our statewide water supplies.”

“While today’s snow survey determined that the water content is much higher than February, the state will remain well below average for the year,” Gehrke said.

In addition to the manual surveys conducted at Phillips, DWR also logs electronic readings from 103 stations scattered throughout the Sierra. Electronic measurements indicate the SWE of the northern Sierra snowpack is 11.8 inches, 43% of the multi-decade average for today’s date. The central and southern Sierra readings are 17.6 inches (60% of average) and 12.9 inches (50% of average) respectively. Statewide, the snowpack’s SWE is 14.6 inches, or 52% of the April 2 average. Electronic snowpack readings are available on the Internet at: http://bit.ly/2rVa84a

The Phillips snow course, near the intersection of Highway 50 and Sierra-at-Tahoe Road, is one of approximately 260 that are surveyed manually throughout the winter. Manual measurements augment the electronic readings from the snow pillows in the Sierra Nevada that provide a current snapshot of the water content in the snowpack.

Results of the readings by DWR at Phillips Station and Tamarack Flat are as follows:

 Location Elevation Snow Depth Water Content % of Long-Term Average
Phillips Station

April 2, 2018

6,800 feet 32.1 Inches 12.4 Inches 49%
Tamarack Flat

April 2, 2018

6,500 feet 38.8 inches 16.7 inches 60%

California’s exceptionally high precipitation last winter and spring resulted in above-average storage in 154 reservoirs tracked by DWR. DWR estimates total storage in these reservoirs at the end of March was 28.2 million acre-feet (MAF), or 107 % of the 26.4 MAF average for this time of year.

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