California Reports Banner Year for Sierra Snowfall

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (CN) – As a spring shower padded already impressive snowfall totals, California water regulators on Thursday trudged through growing snowdrifts and measured a portion of the Sierra Nevada snowpack at 183 percent of average.

Surveyors measured 94.4 inches of snow at the meadow 90 miles east of Sacramento, a telltale sign California’s reservoirs will be brimming this summer.

The crucial early spring measurement signals not only a healthy Sierra Nevada watershed, but also summer relief for California farmers, cities and reservoirs that have trudged through more than five years of drought.

California Department of Water Resources officials said accumulation totals have benefited from a string of cold winter storms since October, unlike previous years where the snowpack had essentially melted and drained off by April 1. The Sierra snowpack holds approximately 30 percent of the state’s water supply.

“Most of the storms came in rather cold so we tended to build the snowpack, as opposed to having these big rain events,” said Frank Gehrke, chief of the California Cooperative Snow Surveys Program.

The manual snow survey at the Phillips Sierra Nevada site gives state and federal officials an idea of just how much water will be available for deliveries this summer. A particularly damning snowpack survey in April 2015 measured just 5 percent of the historical average and moved Gov. Jerry Brown to issue the state’s first-ever mandatory water restrictions.

Brown has hinted that he may end the state’s drought emergency declaration after the wet season. Statewide, snowpack totals are currently 164 percent of normal, according to electronic sensor readings.

“We’ve heard there’s going to be more on that next week, in terms of what direction that exactly is going to go,” Gehrke said when asked if the healthy snow measurement could be the drought buster.

Though the April snow measurement is typically the last, Gehrke said there is a possibility of another measurement at the Phillips site in May.

The snowpack’s dramatic recovery since April 2015 means mostly good news for California’s nearly $50 billion agricultural sector.

Last week, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation – which operates some of California’s most important reservoirs and canals – said many Northern California farmers on the federal system will get 100 percent of their deliveries, while others in the Central Valley will receive 65 percent of their water allocations. During the throes of California’s recent drought, contractors received no deliveries from the Central Valley Project and some haven’t received 100 percent since 2006.

Westlands Water District, the largest agricultural water district in the nation, found out last week it would receive 65 percent of its maximum contracted allotments despite the wet winter. It said the Central Valley Project, established in 1933, needs to be updated.

“Given the near-record snowpack and water storage levels, a 65 percent allocation demonstrates that current operational constraints, regulations and punitive laws have hamstrung the project’s ability to provide water to California communities,” Westlands said in a statement. “The partial allocation is evidence for the need to change the laws governing water deliveries.”


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