SOUTH LAKE TAHOE, Calif. (CN) – California’s first snow survey of the 2017-18 season turned up dismal results and stoked fears that one year after a drought-busting winter, the Golden State could be headed right back toward widespread water scarcity.
The California Department of Water Resources employee Frank Gehrke reported that California’s Sierra Nevada maintains an average of 1.4 inches of snow, with less than a half-inch of water content in that snow. The figures represent a snowpack that currently sits at 3 percent of average.
Water officials downplayed the worrying initial reading, noting that a few major storms in January, February or March could add up to a wet year.
“As we’re only a third of the way through California’s three wettest months, it’s far too early to draw any conclusions about what kind of season we’ll have this year,” Department of Water Resources Director Grant Davis said. “California’s great weather variability means we can go straight from a dry year to a wet year and back again to dry.”
There is no greater example of the state’s great variability then the fact that last year’s winter set all kinds of records for rain and snowfall after a prolonged drought that lasted half a decade.
About 95 inches of water fell in the Northern Sierra last winter, according to the 8-station index run by the department of water resources.
The winter before that, about 59 inches fell. The average is 55 inches.
In 2014-2015, at the bottom of the drought, only 37 inches of precipitation graced the northern part of California’s highest mountain range. The precipitations totals for this year currently hover around 12 inches, although the forecasts are calling for rain throughout the remainder of the week and into next.
But more important than the total of precipitation is the type that falls, or what water experts refer to as the snow-water equivalent.
In the winter, precipitation as pure rain is less beneficial. California needs a large snowpack that melts incrementally throughout the spring and early summer to replenish its system of reservoirs.
Furthermore, those reservoirs, combined with the streams and rivers that flow from the Sierra, makes up more than two-thirds of the water used by California residents, farms and other water-intensive businesses. It also provides crucial habitat to an array of endangered fish and other species.
While Wednesday’s snow survey at the Phillips Station near Echo Summit southwest of Lake Tahoe is largely ceremonial and only gives an idea of conditions at a specific location, the measurement does indicate a snowpack inadequacy throughout the Sierra Nevada.
The snow-water equivalent measurement throughout the Northern Sierra is 2.3 inches, only 21 percent of the historic average, according to the Department of Water Resources. The same low readings prevail in the central and southern parts of the Sierra as well.
“The survey is a disappointing start of the year, but it’s far too early to draw conclusions about what kind of a wet season we’ll have this year,” Gehrke, who conducted the survey at Phillips Station, said. “There’s plenty of time left in the traditional wet season to reverse the dry trend we’ve been experiencing.”
The high-pressure system that has entrenched itself over Northern California throughout December has shown signs of dissipating. But forecasters also caution that after a series of smaller storms, none of which will be enormous moisture-laden atmospheric rivers so critical to California’s water health, another dry spell looks to return for the last half of January.
California receives half of its annual moisture in December, January and February. If things don’t change soon, drought conditions that Californians thought were in the past could be back after only a year away.