Although the state snowpack is booming at levels nearly double its usual amount and has provided some relief to dry conditions, California remains in a drought following early winter storms.
The Department of Water Resources conducted the first snow survey of the season on Dec. 30 at Philips Station in the Sierra Nevada, measuring 78.5 inches of snow depth and a snow water equivalent of 20 inches. The numbers represent 202% of average for the date, and statewide the snowpack was 150% of normal as of Tuesday.
The snow water equivalent measures the amount of water contained in the snowpack and is a key component of DWR’s water supply forecast, but DWR Director Karla Nemeth says help is still needed to ease California’s drought concerns.
“We could not have asked for a better December in terms of Sierra snow and rain,” Nemeth said. “But Californians need to be aware that even these big storms may not refill our major reservoirs during the next few months. 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.”
High temperatures, dry soil and evaporation led to disappointing snowpack runoff last winter — a reminder that it will take much more than just an average water year to recover from drought.
December is the first of the three typically wettest months of California’s water year. Significant January and February precipitation would be required 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. 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.
“California continues to experience evidence of climate change with bigger swings between wet and dry years and even extreme variability within a season. A wet start to the year doesn’t mean this year will end up above average once it’s all said and done,” said Sean de Guzman, Manager of DWR’s Snow Surveys and Water Supply Forecasting Unit.
Prior to the recent December storms which amplified the snowpack, the U.S. Drought Monitor showed that nearly 80% of California was experiencing either exceptional drought (D4) or extreme drought (D3). As of the most recent data from Dec. 30, just about 33% of the state is classified as D3 or D4.
Portions of California in the D4 category fell from 23% of the state before the storms to now less than 1%, including Stanislaus County.
Before the rainfall, 94.78% of Stanislaus County was classified as experiencing the D4 category, or exceptional drought. This week, none of the county is in the D4 category and the drought conditions have improved to 94.44% in the D3, or extreme drought, category.
To view current drought statistics, visit droughtmonitor.unl.edu.