New Year, Same Uncertainty With Snow Situation

  • by Will Holbert
  • Jan 7, 2019
  • Water News

An intense weekend storm in Northern California took some of the edge off the first snow survey results of the year, indicating that 2019 could deliver a healthy water year for the state.

The Department of Water Resources (DWR) conducted the first Phillips Station snow survey on Jan. 3, recording 25.5 inches of snow depth and a snow water equivalent of 9 inches, which is 80% of average for that location. Statewide, the Sierra snowpack on Jan. 3 was 67% of average. The results confirm that despite early winter storms, Sierra water content is below average for this time of year. The latest storm added more than three feet of snow in parts of the Sierra.

“The initial results were a little disappointing, but at this early stage, we remain cautiously optimistic. The year-to-year variability in precipitation is why water agencies have invested heavily in planning for all contingencies,” said ACWA Executive Director Dave Eggerton. “This past weekend’s storm is a reminder of how things could turn around, and will hopefully continue to turn around, and enable us to have access to healthy reserves in storage in summer and fall.”

Climate change has also shifted the balance of rain and snow, with rain falling at higher elevations than in the past. DWR’s manual snow surveys, combined with our electronic snow sensors and emerging technology, enable successful runoff forecasts and water resource management.

“About two-thirds of California’s annual rainfall occurs December through March. Total precipitation so far this water year, which began October 1, has been below average,” said DWR State Climatologist Michael Anderson. “We still have three wet season months ahead of us, so there’s time for the snowpack to build and improve before it begins to melt, which usually starts happening around April 1.”

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.

DWR has conducted manual snow surveys at Phillips Station since 1964, recording both depth and snow water equivalent. Snow water equivalent is the depth of water that theoretically would result if the entire snowpack melted instantaneously. That measurement allows for a more accurate forecast of spring runoff.

DWR conducts five snow surveys each year – near the first of January, February, March, April and May – at Phillips Station in the Sierra Nevada just off Highway 50 near Sierra-at-Tahoe. The Phillips snow course is one of hundreds that will be surveyed manually throughout the winter. Manual measurements augment the electronic readings from about 100 snow pillows in the Sierra Nevada that provide a current snapshot of the water content in the snowpack.

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