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Despite an ‘incredible’ snowpack, drought not over in California

Californians must be cautious of a return to drought conditions, despite a string of recent, very helpful rainstorms.

LAKE TAHOE, Calif. (CN) — California may celebrate having double the expected snowpack after a string of atmospheric river storms, but state water experts warn that more needs to come to offset years of record-breaking drought.

At the season's second monthly snowpack survey conducted Wednesday at Phillips Station — at the intersection of Highway 50 and Sierra-at-Tahoe Road — the California Department of Water Resources measured current snow depths and water content. Snow Surveys and Water Supply Forecasting Unit Manager Sean de Guzman told the gathered crowd his team found snow with a 85.5” depth or 193% of the location’s average — already 137% of the expected average for April. 

Statewide, the snowpack is at 205% of average, de Guzman told the excited crowd. He said this winter is outpacing the wettest year on record going back many years, 1982-1983, leading to an “impressive” increase in reservoir storage to 9 million acre-feet statewide. 

Snow Surveys and Water Supply Forecasting Unit Manager Sean de Guzman tells a crowd at Lake Tahoe that the California snowpack is at double its average amount for February. (Department of Water Resources / Screenshot via Courthouse News)

“Our snowpack is off to an incredible start, and it is exactly what California needs to really break from our ongoing drought,” he said. “However, every day it doesn’t rain or snow, we gradually return to drier conditions. California is such a large state and you really need to analyze those impacts on a regional scale."

Department of Water Resources director Karla Nemeth said measurements taken on April 1 will truly determine the water year, because “our traditional wet months are still ahead of us.” She said if the state returns to dry conditions for two months — as happened in 2022 — a significant snowpack can quickly disappear.

Periodic rain and snow over the next several months will be key to maximizing benefits to the state’s water supply, especially by pushing water into groundwater basins which take much longer to recharge, and can hold about ten times more water than surface water reservoirs. 

“California has always experienced some degree of swings between wet and dry, but the past few months have demonstrated how much more extreme those swings are becoming,” Nemeth said.

She said that while Wednesday's results are good news for water supplies, the past shows how quickly snowpack can disappear if dry conditions return.

“When we think about drought, and does our big January actually bust the drought in California, it’s too soon to tell,” Nemeth said. “I don’t want to be a downer here, but I do want to make sure that everyone understands we need to exercise caution. There’s a lot more that needs to play out over the next several months for us to really capture our full water supply here.”

Asked about how quickly the snow might melt this year, she and de Guzman said the forecasts show it is not likely the snow will melt into the ground as quickly as in 2021 because the soils are currently wetter. Nemeth added her department is next analyzing whether regional water allocations can be increased again, and she expects another adjustment to be announced in late February. 

California remains in a moderate to severe drought as of late January. (The California Drought Monitor / Screenshot via Courthouse News)

The state’s data exchange center reports that as of Tuesday, many of the state’s key reservoirs are still below historic average levels including Lake Shasta. However, one of the largest reservoirs, Lake Oroville, is at 112% of its historic average, and about five others have also topped their historic average highs. 

The state drought monitor, which will be updated Thursday, shows that as of Jan. 26 most of the state remains in a moderate to severe drought. That includes most of the agricultural havens of the Sacramento and Central valleys.

The next snowpack survey will take place March 1. 

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