March Storms Not Enough to Offset Dry California Winter

(CN) — For most Americans, April 1 conjures images of practical jokes, pranks and other hijinks. But for the farmers and other water users throughout California, the date is something entirely different — the most important day in the state’s water year. 

April 1 is so crucial because it is considered to be the peak of the snowpack in the Sierra Nevada mountain range, where the buildup of snowdrifts eventually provides homes, farms and businesses with water throughout the dry summer months characteristic of the state’s Mediterranean climate. 

(Ken James / California Department of Water Resources)

While reservoirs often get much of their water back during the wet winter months, it is the gradual melting of the snowpack that replenishes them during the dry summers.

This April 1 did not bring good news. 

The lack of precipitation throughout January, February and March means the snowpack stands at 53% of average throughout the Sierra. 

“Over the last decade, California’s snowpack has been alternating between extremely wet and extremely dry,” said Sean de Guzman, a water surveyor with the California Department of Water Resources. “In the past 10 years, we’ve seen three of our smallest snowpacks on record, but we’ve also seen three of our largest snowpacks on record.” 

Guzman traveled to Phillips Station, near Echo Pass just south of Lake Tahoe, on Wednesday to capture the measurements of the snowpack at the location. 

The news for the northern Sierra is a little better than the overall picture, as the snow survey at Phillips revealed 43.5 inches of snow – 66% of average. 

The past few storms in March helped inch the snowpack toward a more palatable place, but the bone-dry February – literally in many areas of the state – still looms large in the water year. 

“California’s climate continues to show extreme unpredictability, and February’s record dryness is a clear example of the extremes associated with climate change,” said Karla Nemeth, director of the state water department. 

The Sierra snowpack typically provides about a third of the water consumed in California, and farmers in the arid southern regions of the Central Valley rely on the state and federal water departments for allotments to provide their crops with much-needed water. 

The size of those allotments vary depending on the wetness of the winter and California’s relatively dry winter bodes ill for those hoping for ample water deliveries in the coming summer. 

However, it could be worse. 

During the 2013-2014 water year, only about 31 inches of snow fell on California. The following year, it was about 37 inches, deepening the worst drought the Golden State had seen in generations. 

This year, the total is already above 40 inches and more precipitation is on the way. 

While skies tend to clear after April 1, the forecast calls for unseasonably wet weatherover the weekend, including heavy snow in the Sierra. 

It means that just as the snowpack is preparing to melt, it may get one more bump before the weather turns warmer and the snow begins to melt. 

In California, sometimes all it takes is one gully-washer to make a pronounced difference in the state’s water outlook. 

Water managers, farmers and regular residents all hope this weekend brings that kind of storm. 

Wednesday’s survey was conducted by water managers and was not a live press event as per usual, due to concerns about the coronavirus epidemic. 

According to the U.S. Drought Monitor, only one of California’s 58 counties managed to escape the abnormally dry conditions label as of March 24. 

Moderate drought took hold in several regions including on the Central Coast and in the Central Valley. However, bouts of rain have fallen since the agency published its outlook and it looks as though the state could escape the worst-case scenario from a water perspective.  

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