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Paltry Sierra snowpack spells prolonged drought in California

Time is running out for Mother Nature to send a "March miracle" to shake California out of a third year of drought.

(CN) — A regular Sierra snowpack survey Tuesday proved what most Californians already knew: The first two months of 2022 were the driest January and February in a century.

The survey at Phillips Station south of Lake Tahoe did not bode well for local and statewide drought conditions. Though large storms at the end of 2021 offered a glimmer of hope for a robust snowpack to replenish the state’s dwindling reservoirs and water supply, a two-month dearth of precipitation kept Phillips Station and California as a whole on track for another year of drought.

Sean de Guzman, manager of the snow surveys and water supply forecasting unit at the state Department of Water Resources, said during a press briefing at Phillips Station that their measurement showed a snow depth of 35 inches with a snow water content of 16 inches. He said this is only 68% of the location’s average for this time of year.

Though Phillips Station is one of 260 locales where the department conducts its snow survey, de Guzman noted that automated snow censor networks show the statewide snowpack is at only 63% of its average.

“We were all encouraged after all that rain and snow in October and December,” de Guzman said. “But after how dry these last two months were, there’s no guarantee that the snowmelt will run off and follow the same historical patterns that they have in the past, which makes the results today all that much more important.”

According to de Guzman, more than half of the annual rainfall in the Sierra Nevada mountains comes in December, January and February. The snowpack generally reaches its peak around April 1, but there’s little indication that the next month will change the state’s snowpack deficits.

“The current weather outlook for March from the climate outlook predictions center is showing better chances for more rain and snow in Northern California, including the northern Sierra,” de Guzman said. “However, there isn’t as much confidence that the snowpack in the central and southern Sierra will see that same benefit.”

One of the reasons the department conducts the snow surveys is to estimate how much of the snowpack they can expect to melt and run off into the reservoirs the state relies on for water. The snowpack in the Sierra Nevada historically provides approximately 30% of California’s water needs.

“With below average precipitation and snow up until this point, our team’s latest statewide snowmelt forecasts are only about 66% of average. That’s not enough to fill up our reservoirs, and without any significant storms on the horizon, it’s safe to say that we’ll end this year dry and continue on to the third year of this ongoing drought,” de Guzman said.

Above average temperatures in February already melted some of the snowpack, which is supposed to continue throughout the spring to restock water supplies. But without more snow, reservoir storage will keep idling well below average. De Guzman said the statewide reservoir storage is approximately 73% of average for this date.

“Lake Oroville is currently only 47% full. Lake Shasta, which is our largest reservoir in the state, is only 37% full,” de Guzman said.

Jeremy Hill, manager of the Department of Water Resources’ hydrology and flood operations branch, encouraged the public to utilize California Water Watch to monitor local and statewide water conditions.

“This winter has demonstrated that as the world continues to warm, we’re seeing average conditions become more rare,” said Hill. “Precipitation is moving towards extremes. Even when we get large storms and heavy snowfall early in the season, after a few dry weeks like we’ve seen after this past December, conditions go back below normal. This emphasizes that we cannot let our guard down when it comes to preparing for droughts and continuing to conserve water.”

Hill said it has become more difficult to accurately predict because forecasting previously relied on “historical patterns that no longer apply given our current changed climate conditions.”

Department officials concluded by emphasizing that time is running out for significant weather to make a course correction on California’s water trajectory.

“Since it really hasn’t snowed in practically two months, with the only snow coming later this week, we are well below normal conditions,” de Guzman said. “We really only have about a month left to build up our snowpack. Barring any unforeseen miracle March, which we don’t actually see coming, we will end this year below average.”

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