Recent Storms Made Small Dent to California Snowpack

Frank Gehrke, chief of snow surveys for the California Department of Water Resources, conducts a snow survey at Phillips Station on March 30, 2017, with Nic Enstice (right) of Sierra Nevada Conservancy. A survey conducted a year later, on April 1, 2018, saw a much lighter snowpack. (File)

(CN) – The late-season surge of storms in California bolstered the snowpack that provides much of the state’s water supply, but not enough to even be called average.

The California Department of Water Resources conducted its final and most important snow survey of the year in the Sierra Nevada Mountains near Lake Tahoe, finding the current snowpack at 52 percent of its historical average.

“Despite recent storms, today’s snow survey shows that we’re still playing catch-up when it comes to our statewide water supplies,” said Frank Gehrke, the department worker who conducts the survey.

While half of historical average is no cause for celebration, the snowpack increased 23 percent from when it was conducted in early March after one of the driest Februarys ever recorded in the Golden State.

With its Mediterranean climate of dry summers, most of California’s precipitation falls between November and April. December, January and February are historically the wettest months.

This year proved atypical, but a series of atmospheric rivers struck the state in March and turned would have been a dire water picture into something a bit better. More good news for water users came with Monday’s forecast, which calls for another atmospheric river to hit California later this week.

April 1 is typically the last snow survey, as the snowpack is at its peak before it begins melting as the days lengthen and surface temperatures increase. The snowpack provides nearly 60 percent of water resources to California residents.

Due to the relative lack of precipitation this winter, farmers in the southern portion of the Central Valley have been informed they will receive 20 percent of their typical water allocations.

“Snowpack declines represent a new way of life,” said Karla Nemeth, the director of the water department, who attended Monday’s survey. “It just shows the urgent need to deal with our state hydrology and invest in aging infrastructure.”

While the snowpack remains less than ideal, many of the state’s reservoirs are at or above the historical average, thanks to a very wet year last winter.

The lone exception is the Oroville Dam, which has had to keep its water lower this year during repairs of a spillway that sustained extensive damage last year. At one point, hundreds of thousands of people living below the dam were forced to flee as officials fretted over the dam’s integrity.

“We’re getting ready to start construction on the next phase,” said Nemeth on Monday. “We finished about 40 percent of the project last year and figure to get to the remaining 60 percent.”

Lake Cachuma in Santa Barbara County remains at less than 50 percent of historical average, as rainfall in the south part of the state has been nearly absent this winter.

Santa Barbara and Ventura counties have endured a year to forget.

In December, the Thomas Fire ripped through a wide swath of the area and became the largest wildfire in state history. Soon after, a major storm in January set off a series of mudslides that killed 21 people and damaged hundreds of properties.

On Monday, the California Department of Insurance said property owners have filed $421 million worth of insurance claims in the months following the natural disaster.

“Over $421 million in insured losses represents more than property lost – behind these numbers are the tragic deaths of 21 people and thousands of residents traumatized by unfathomable loss,” said Insurance Commissioner Dave Jones.

 

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