Could winter storms alleviate Calif. drought?

Dec. 31, 2015
Sierra snow water content at 136% of normal; impact on drought still unclear

Staff with DWR head into a meadow near Phillips Station to conduct a manual snow survey off Highway 50 on Dec. 30. DWR photo.

Dec. 31, 2015 (AWCA) -- Wednesday's winter manual snow survey revealed a snowpack water content of 136% of average for this time of year, and while the reading is promising, state officials said it is too early to predict whether California’s drought will be alleviated by winter storms.

Department of Water Resources Director Mark Cowin said in a written statement that the heavy snowfall so far this winter “has been a reasonable start, but another three or four months of surveys will indicate whether the snowpack’s runoff will be sufficient to replenish California’s reservoirs by this summer.”

Frank Gehrke, chief of the California Cooperative Snow Surveys Program, said more than four years of drought have left a water deficit around the state that may be difficult to overcome in just one winter season. Gehrke conducted the snow survey today at Phillips Station. The survey is one of five media-oriented surveys each winter at the Phillips Station plot (elevation 6,800 feet) just off Highway 50 near Sierra-at-Tahoe Road, 90 miles east of Sacramento.

“Clearly, this is much better that it was last year at this time, but we haven’t had the full effect of the El Niño yet,” Gehrke said in a written statement. “If we believe the forecasts, then El Niño is supposed to kick in as we move through the rest of the winter. That will be critical when it comes to looking at reservoir storage.”

According to DWR, today’s manual survey found a snow depth of 54.7 inches – 16 inches more than the average depth measured there since 1965 – and 16.3 inches of water content, 136% of the January 1 average for that site.

DWR’s electronic readings today from 99 stations scattered throughout the Sierra Nevada indicate the water content of the northern Sierra snowpack is 11 inches, 108% of the multi-decade average for the date. The central and southern Sierra readings were 12.1 inches (116% of average) and 7 inches (86%) respectively. Statewide, the snowpack held 10.2 inches of water equivalent, or 105% of the December 30 average.

One year ago, the north, central, south and statewide readings respectively were 5.8 inches (57% of average), 4.7 inches (45%), 4.0 inches (48%) and 4.8 inches (50%).

According to DWR, the state’s largest six reservoirs currently hold between 22% (New Melones) and 53% (Don Pedro) of their historical averages in late December. Storage in Lake Shasta, California’s largest surface reservoir, is 51% of its December 30 average.

In normal years, 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.

Electronic snowpack readings are available on the Internet at:

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