Sierra Snowpack on Track for the Record Books

Yosemite Falls spills into a snow-flecked Yosemite Valley meadow in this file photo from 2015. California water regulators say the 2016-2017 Sierra snowpack is the deepest since 2005, and will go a long way to alleviating drought conditions. (Photo: William Dotinga)

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (CN) – Buoyed by a barrage of January snow that buried ski resorts across the Golden State, regulators announced Thursday that the state’s snowpack is as healthy as it’s been since 2005.

The California Department of Water Resources’ second snow survey of the year measured 28.1 inches of water content at a Sierra Nevada survey site, 153 percent of historical average. Statewide electronic readings compiled from 101 sites throughout the Sierra registered the snowpack at 173 percent of average.

The Phillips site, a meadow approximately 90 miles east of Sacramento, has been measured each winter since 1941 and provides water officials with an estimate of how much runoff will drain into California’s network of reservoirs in the spring. The critical snowpack makes up about 30 percent of the state’s water supply.

Survey results taken during the throes of the Golden State’s historic drought routinely revealed an alarming lack of snow, including a meager 14 percent of average in February 2014. From 2012 and 2015, the February measurements were all below average.

A particularly damning snowpack survey in April 2015 measured just 5 percent of its historical average and spurred Gov. Jerry Brown to issue the state’s first-ever mandatory water restrictions.

The announcement of this year’s bountiful snowpack bolstered a federal report released Thursday that classified 49 percent of California as drought free.

One year ago, the U.S. Drought Monitor placed 39 percent of the state under the worst drought category. According to the latest report, no region is experiencing exceptional drought.

The remarkable drought relief came to the Golden State in January in the form of “atmospheric fire hoses,” or pineapple express storms.

The atmospheric rivers dumped 2.94 inches of rain in Los Angeles in a single day, while a monthly total of 9.85 inches fell in Sacramento – making it the fourth wettest January on record. Sacramento normally records 3.97 inches of rainfall in January.

However, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration meteorologist Tom Di Liberto says California is riding a wave of “weather whiplash” after several years of bitter drought but that it’s not out of the “redwoods.” Despite the stunning recent amount of recent rain, California’s groundwater levels remain depleted due to over-pumping during the drought.

“Even if we get a ton of precipitation this year, you really have to replenish that groundwater over several years,” Di Liberto said in a phone interview. “Don’t go outside and turn on the faucet and let it drain forever.”

State officials echoed Di Liberto’s concern, noting California’s variable climate and that bursts of rain and snow are often followed by drought.

“In the last 10 water years, eight have been dry, one wet, one average,” state climatologist Mike Anderson said in a statement. “Hopefully this year will end up being wet, but we cannot say whether it will be one wet year in another string of dry ones.”

A recent NASA study found that while the January storms may have knifed into the state’s water deficit caused by five-plus years of drought, it’s still millions of acre-feet in debt. California still faces an estimated 36.5 million acre-feet shortage, which would take more than eight Shasta Lakes – its largest reservoir – to satisfy.

The wet winter has water suppliers and many cities clamoring for the state to relax its drought laws. On Feb. 8, the California State Water Resources Board is scheduled to vote and likely extend Brown’s emergency drought order for another nine months.

The water board says the drought order – implemented in June 2015 and based on usage figures from 2013 – has saved enough water to supply approximately 12 million residents for one year.