Meager Snowpack Spells More Pain for Parched California

Slinking deeper into drought after a second-consecutive dry winter, a new survey pegs statewide snowpack at just 59% of normal. The dwindling snowpack and shrinking reservoirs have officials and farmers readying for a long, dry summer.

DWR conducts fourth manual snow survey at Phillips Station snow course in El Dorado County on Thursday. (Credit: DWR/2021)

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (CN) — All too familiar signs of drought continue to pile up on California, the latest a spring survey revealing a skimpy statewide snowpack.

Confirming another miserable rainy season in the Golden State, the California Department of Water Resources announced Thursday the state’s critical snowpack sits at just 59% of normal at the historical highpoint of the season.

After back-to-back arid winters, California is sinking toward another drought emergency just a few years after its worst in modern history.

“While there is some snow on the ground today at Phillips Station, there is no doubt California is in a critically dry year,” said department Director Karla Nemeth in a statement.

The California Department of Water Resources conducted its fourth manual snow survey of the year from a traditional site on a meadow near a Lake Tahoe-area ski resort. Surveyors measured about 50 inches or a snow water equivalent of 21 inches, good for 83% of average for the region.

But the overall picture offers a much more ominous outlook, as the southern and central Sierra remain well below average. The department’s collection of electronic sensors situated across the state reveal a snowpack of 16.5 inches, or 59% of average.

The April survey is considered the most important of the year as it marks the traditional end of California’s window for major snowstorms. The state relies on the Sierra snowpack for approximately 30% of its annual water supply and Thursday’s result failed to offer hope for water managers and farmers.

After a miserably dry March, the state recently slashed its allocation for State Water Project customers in half. The department now expects to deliver just 5% of supplies requested, down from 10% announced last December.

California’s impending woes are further indicated by shrinking water levels at its largest reservoirs in the northern part of the state. According to the latest update, Lake Oroville sits at 53% of average and Shasta Lake at 65%. April doesn’t figure to offer much relief as the National Weather Service’s monthly outlook predicts drier than average weather for the Golden State.

The meager snowpack and quickly emptying reservoirs have spurred the state’s water board to warn 40,000 farmers and water rights holders to begin preparing for drought and water shortages.  

While former Governor Jerry Brown officially declared California drought-free in 2017 after a record-dry stretch, many scientists believe the state is still mired in a decades-long megadrought. The U.S. Drought Monitor agrees, with its latest update pegging 90% of the state experiencing some form of drought.

Nemeth said one silver lining this winter is this year’s storms have been colder than average, bringing more snow than rain. She added the state is better prepped to handle the drought than in previous years.

“State agencies, water suppliers and Californians are more prepared than ever to adapt to dry conditions and meet the challenges that may be ahead,” Nemeth said. “With climate change impacting how precipitation falls in California, ongoing water efficiency and long-term efforts like recycling water, capturing stormwater and planting water-friendly landscapes are essential to securing California’s water future.”

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