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Below average snowpack boosted by storm
snowpack survey
John King, Water Resource Engineer, of the California Department of Water Resources, Snow Survey Section inserts the long aluminum snow depth survey pole into the snow for the first DWR snow survey of the 2019 season held at Phillips Station in the Sierra Nevada Mountains on Jan. 3 (Photo by Ken James/California Department of Water Resources).

This week’s stormy weather is a welcome sight for the struggling Sierra Nevada snowpack, which continues to run below average for the second consecutive year.

The first Phillips Station snow survey of 2019, conducted by the Department of Water Resources on Jan. 3, revealed that despite early winter storms, Sierra water content was below average for the time of year. The manual survey recorded 25.5 inches of snow depth and a snow water equivalent of nine inches, which is 80 percent of the location’s historical average.

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.

While the first results of the year were underwhelming, last year’s January reading was much worse with the snowpack registering just 27 percent of average.

“About two-thirds of California’s annual rainfall occurs December through March. Total precipitation so far this water year, which began Oct. 1, has been below average,” DWR State Climatologist Michael Anderson said on Jan. 3. “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.”

In 2017, the first snowpack survey of the year showed levels to be 53 percent of the early-January average, but by the DWR’s second survey in February, the snow water equivalent was 173 percent of the average for that date.

Things have begun to improve this year as well since the initial snowpack survey. The Jan. 5-6 precipitation throughout California added to the snowpack, and by Jan. 7 the snowpack had risen to 84 percent of average, according to DWR sensors — 79 percent in the northern Sierra Nevada, 87 percent in the central Sierra and 86 percent in the southern part of the mountain range.

According to the Turlock Irrigation District, data through Jan. 6 showed that the Tuolumne River Watershed accumulated .59 inches of rain during the first week of 2019. The average for the month in this area is 6.52 inches, TID Hydrology Utility Analyst Olivia Cramer told the Board of Directors at their Jan. 8 meeting, and this week’s storms will contribute to that total.

Most recent data from DWR sensors shows that snowpack at 84 percent of normal as of Tuesday. Despite the wetter weather, the below average snowpack is nothing new for drought-ridden California. The state already has an unpredictable climate, DWR Director Karla Nemeth said, and managing water resources within such an environment has only become more complicated in recent years.

“The last few years have shown how variable California’s climate truly is and what a profound impact climate change has on our water resources,” Nemeth said. “California’s significant weather variability means we can go from historic drought to record rainfall, with nothing in between. Climate change will continue to exacerbate the extremes, creating additional challenges for maintaining water supply reliability and the need for innovative solutions.”

On average, the snowpack supplies about 30 percent 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 conducts five snow surveys each winter – 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.

According to the National Weather Service, high impact rain will hit Turlock and the surrounding area on Wednesday and Thursday, bringing with it up to two inches of rain coupled with strong winds and potential flooding.

The City of Turlock Municipal Services department operates a sandbag pickup operation, which allows Turlock residents to pick up sandbags for use during storm events to prevent damage and flooding on their property. Sandbags are available at a self-serve basis from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Friday at 901 S. Walnut Ave.

On Friday, showery weather can be expected with limited rain expected. Overall, the storm is expected to contribute anywhere from six to 18 inches of snow in the Sierra.

To report a water, sewer or streets related emergency, contact the Turlock Police Department Dispatch line at 209-668-1200.