Sierra snowpack above normal thanks to winter storms, annual survey finds

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snow survey

Sean de Guzman, Chief of the California Department of Water Resources Snow Surveys and Water Supply Forecasting Section, walks in the deep snow during the measurement phase of the first snow survey of the season in the Sierra on December 30, 2021. (Andrew Innerarity / California Department of Water Resources)

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (KRON) — The California Department of Water Resources announced results from its first snow survey of the season.

Thanks to early winter storms throughout December, California’s mountain snow holds 160% of the water it normally does this time of year, water officials announced Thursday.

(California Department of Water Resources)

“We could not have asked for a better December in terms of Sierra snow and rain,” said DWR Director Karla Nemeth.

The annual snow survey is conducted in the Sierra off Highway 50 in El Dorado County.

According to DWR, Thursday’s manual survey recorded 78.5 inches of snow depth and a snow water equivalent of 20 inches at Philips Station. That’s 202% of average.

Snow survey (December 30, 2021 / Jonathan Wong / California Department of Water Resources)
Snow survey (December 30, 2021 / Jonathan Wong / California Department of Water Resources)

California is still in a drought

While it’s a strong start for the drought-stricken state, California still remains in a drought.

“Californians need to be aware that even these big storms may not refill our major reservoirs during the next few months,” Nemeth said.

DWR said the state will need more than average year to recover from the drought as California is still recovering from last winter as the snowpack runoff due to high temperatures, dry soil and evaporation.

The snowmelt runoff is particularly critical in California, where snow on the Sierra Nevada provides about 30 percent of the state’s water and one of the areas hardest-hit by snow drought this year was the Sierra range.

Courtesy: National Integrated Drought Information System.

“We need more storms and average temperatures this winter and spring, and we can’t be sure it’s coming. So it’s important that we continue to do our part to keep conserving. We will need that water this summer,” Nemeth said.

Drought relief depends on remaining wet season

December is the first of the three typically wettest months of California’s water year.

DWR said there would need to be significant precipitation in January and February to generate enough runoff to make up for the previous two winters that were California’s fifth- and second-driest water years on record.

“California has experienced wet Decembers before, only to have storms disappear for the remainder of the season,” state water officials wrote.

In 2013, the first snow survey provided promising results after a wet December, similar to this year. However, the following January and February were exceptionally dry, and the year ended as the driest on record, contributing to a record-breaking drought.

As spring sets in, the snowpack begins to melt.

Water that is not absorbed into the ground, called runoff, trickles into mountain streams. Streams feed rivers and eventually aqueducts and reservoirs, where it can be stored for use throughout the dry season.

Climate change

Climate change is affecting California’s snowpac, according to DWR officials.

More precipitation has been falling as rain, and less as snow, in recent years. Additionally, excessively dry soils and dry, warm spring temperatures reduce yearly runoff.

“California continues to experience evidence of climate change with bigger swings between wet and dry years and even extreme variability within a season,” said Sean de Guzman, manager of DWR’s Snow Surveys and Water Supply Forecasting Unit.

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