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Dry January drops California snowpack below par as drought trudges ahead

A bitterly dry January erases much of the snowpack gains seen in December, signaling a likely third-consecutive year of drought.

(CN) — A blockbuster December blanketed California’s mountains and offered hope for a drought-busting winter but after a January abound with bluebird skies, the state’s snowpack has quickly sunk below average.  

The bevy of December storms pushed snow levels in parts of the state to nearly 170% of normal, but on Tuesday state officials measured the critical frozen reservoir at just 92% of its historic average. With no significant precipitation in the long-range forecast, officials are concerned another disappointing month could further undo December’s drought relief.

“That one dry month of January basically wiped-out whatever head start we had as we head toward the end of winter,” said Sean de Guzman, California Department of Water Resources snow survey manager. “We still have about two months to build up our snowpack but we all need to be prepared for a third-consecutive dry year.”

Skiers may have loved the ideal January weather after being locked out for much of December due to white-out conditions, but hydrologically the month was dreadful.

The Lake Tahoe region hasn’t seen significant snowfall in nearly a month while San Francisco recorded less than an inch of rain, marking its 10th driest January since records began. Further south in the agricultural region of the state, the city of Fresno measured just trace amounts of rainfall last month.   

“No major precipitation events unfortunately have hit the Sierra in the last month,” said Jeff Laird of the State Water Resources Control Board. “While December was well above average, the dry January has brought our total for the water year down to what is about average.”

The statewide snowpack estimate of 92% is taken from over 100 remote sensors throughout the state, but the survey taken Tuesday at Phillips Station in the central Sierra Nevada mountain range found a more encouraging figure of 108%. Officials said the late December storms hit the Lake Tahoe region harder than other areas and that Phillips Station has received 78% of its historical yearly average.

Last month was bone dry but de Guzman said temperatures remained relatively low, meaning the snowpack hasn’t really begun to melt. However, he reiterated that as each dry day goes by, the snowpack levels will continue to sink further below average.

With January stacking up as a complete bust, the next two months are lining up as a make or break stretch as traditionally the state’s storm window snaps shut by April 1.

Often called California's "frozen reservoir," the Sierra snowpack supplies nearly a third of the state's drinking water throughout the year. Last year, exceptionally warm temperatures melted the snowpack months early and dismal amounts of runoff were captured by the state’s critical reservoirs, spurring Governor Gavin Newsom to urge residents to voluntarily slash water use.  

According to the most recent update from the U.S. Drought Monitor, 99% of the state or 37 million people are experiencing some form of drought.  

Now with reservoir levels already below average across many state reservoirs, another dry and warm spring could lead to a summer of mandatory water restrictions and more curtailments for farmers.

Unfortunately for the Golden State, snow totals will likely remain stagnant as weather forecasts aren’t predicting storms through at least mid-February.

De Guzman said the alternating record-wet and dry months illustrate the difficulty state water managers and suppliers face in predicting how much supplies will be left for cities and farmers later in the year.

“Our climate is experiencing these volatile shifts from wet to dry, year after year, even month to month which make water resources planning and management so challenging in a changing climate,” he said.   

In a sign Californians are bracing for the prospect of a third-consecutive dry year, the state last December met Governor Newsom’s 15% water savings target for the first time.  

The Water Resources Control Board said the savings were largely due to residents turning off their sprinklers during the December storms and encouraged people to remain stingy at the tap until the storm doors reopen.  

“Great to see these numbers, they are incredibly impressive,” said Joaquin Esquivel, water board chair. “It will be interesting to see as a contrast because January was so dry what our numbers look like and get a sense of where we are as a state.”

Water conservation was highest in the central and southern parts of the state, specifically the Los Angeles and San Diego region which saw an 18% savings relative to December 2020. The Central Coast chipped in with a 15% savings followed by Tulare Lake with 15% and the Sacramento River region at 13%. Overall, the state has reduced urban water usage by 7.4% since last July, or about half of Newsom’s voluntary goal.  

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