As California faces what would mark the sixth year of one of the most severe droughts on record, the Department of Water Resources revealed a dire snapshot of water content Tuesday during the first manual measurement of the Sierra Nevada snowpack, which was found to be only 53 percent of the early-January average.
“Keep in mind we had pretty much bare ground here about a week ago, with a few patches of snow,” said California Cooperative Snow Surveys Program chief Frank Gehrke, who conducted the survey Tuesday at Phillips Station in the Sierra Nevada range. “Most of the snow we measured today came down in the last couple days and is continuing to come down.”
The snow survey revealed a snow water equivalence of 6 inches, which is 5.3 inches less than the average early-January snow water equivalence as measured at the station for over 50 years. Snow water equivalence roughly equates to the amount of water that would hypothetically result if the entire snowpack suddenly melted.
The snowpack on average provides about 30 percent of California’s water once it melts in the spring and early summer. DWR said that “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.”
According to DWR’s electronic readings from 105 stations throughout the Sierra Nevada Tuesday, water content came in at 7.2 inches, or 68 percent of average for the date, for the northern Sierra; 7.4 inches, or 65 percent of average, for the central Sierra; and 6.6 inches, or 73 percent of average, for the southern Sierra. Statewide, the snowpack had a snow water equivalent of 7.2 inches, which is 70 percent of the Jan. 3 average.
DWR said that January and February are two of California’s three historically wettest months, which indicates that the readings taken Tuesday at Phillips “are a key starting point of information but don’t shed much light on how wet the wet season will ultimately be.”
State Climatologist Mike Anderson said that about half of California’s annual rainfall occurs in December, January and February, with approximately two-thirds of the annual total arriving December through March.
“We still have three historically wet months ahead of us so there’s still time for the snowpack to build and improve before it begins to melt, which usually starts happening around April 1,” said Anderson.
Acting DWR Director Bill Croyle said that he is “cautiously optimistic about water conditions” as precipitation and storage are doing relatively well compared to the past five years of historical drought conditions.
“The snowpack is clearing lagging below its early-January average, but we have many more snow courses to measure this winter before we’ll know whether this water year has had a significant positive effect on the drought,” said Croyle.
During Tuesday’s survey, Gehrke said he hoped a series of wet cold storms that are predicted to continue into next week would “bolster the snowpack.”
“I can see us being potentially at average once that series of storms moves through,” said Gehrke. “I think it’s a very encouraging start to the winter, and we certainly we’ve had other winters when (Phillips) has been basically a bare field.”
In preparation for these storms, Turlock Irrigation District announced its intent to increase flows on the river in order to accommodate runoff. While spokesman Calvin Curtin stressed that this is a normal operation, it has been several years since the District has had releases this high.
“During the current series of storms expected to impact the region over the next week, TID is making seasonal releases to the Tuolumne River to accommodate the forecasted water inflow to Don Pedro Reservoir,” said Curtin. “TID would like to strongly caution the public to exercise extreme care as these high-flow conditions will cause the river to be swifter and it could contain more debris than normal as it has been several years since flows have been increased to this level.”
The planned released over the next seven to 10 days will reach approximately 7,000 cubic feet per second from the current release of approximately 1,100 CFS. TID said that while these releases will cause the river to rise significantly, they will not be enough to push it out of its historic channel.
For real time river flow information, visit tid.org/river.