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Saturday, June 22, 2024 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

With drought relieved, California casts wary eye on snowmelt

California's massive snowpack has water managers on edge due to flooding concerns that could occur later this spring and summer.

LAS VEGAS (CN) — With record and near-record snowpack up and down California, much of its multiyear drought has abated — but it’s never time to break out the balloons and party favors when it comes to water in the West.

During a California-Nevada U.S. Drought Monitoring Group seminar Monday, water experts were upbeat when talking about the massive snowpack, reservoirs spilling and more storms on the horizon.

“Overall, things are looking very good. And so that’s really nice to share after many of these kinds of updates where we tend to look at things going the other direction,” said Ben Hatchett of the Desert Research Institute. “So, the bottom line: Drought conditions have been improving and they continue to improve.”

A substantial portion of California has no drought, although areas still listed as dry to moderately dry include the California desert in the south and uppermost northern California in the southern Cascade Range region near the Oregon border.

In Nevada, the nation’s driest, the central part of the state is out of drought, but areas in the north and south are considered dry to moderately dry, including Nye and Clark counties.

In California, Hatchett mentioned the Central Valley, coastal regions and the Sierra Nevada as being in great shape.

The Sierra snowpack “is pretty impressive,” according to Hatchett. “We’re seeing a lot of snow-water equivalent records, snowfall records, and this upcoming April 1 survey is going to be real exciting to see what kinds of numbers come in from there,” said Hatchett. “We’re in excellent shape.”

River flows are “well above” to “way above” normal. Flows are up vastly everywhere, according to Hatchett. Aiding the flows are the soil moisture conditions. He showed a graph which explained the soil moisture was at the 95th percentile, meaning that only 5% of the time that there’s higher soil moisture.

The colossal snowpack hasn’t come without problems, including road closures, people being cut off from services and structure damage, said Hatchett. He mentioned that this month, an avalanche blocked Highway 395 in Nevada and some San Bernardino County mountain residents in California were snowbound, unable to get food and medicine.

Then there is the spring/summer snowmelt. If it gets too warm too soon, flooding becomes a main concern. Water managers continue releasing water out of some reservoirs so future snowmelt won’t overtake dams.

“We’ve got to keep our eyes out on the horizon for sunny heat waves that are going to lead to snowmelt concerns,” said Hatchett.

Nathan Patrick of the California Nevada River Forecast Center said the Central Valley may bear the brunt of summer flooding. “The melt season has the potential to be problematic for water managers, particularly in the San Joaquin river system, where reservoirs are smaller and channel capacity does not match the Sacramento River system,” he said. "Managing this water is going to be extremely challenging throughout the San Joaquin system."

Hatchett gave a warning to those who think the water issues are solved.

“A final point, to highlight the fact, that drought is always looming, especially in a hotter and thirstier world,” said Hatchett, noting the last three years of bountiful precipitation — 2011, 2017 and 2019 — were followed by dry years.

While the precipitation this year will be remembered for years to come, it’s not the only factor experts look at while studying hydrology.

“In general, based on the unexpected wet winter, drought reduction is expected to continue through June, but there are some exceptions, near the Oregon border and portions of the California deserts," Patrick said. "It’s important to keep in mind that drought can be measured in a variety of ways. The most common being precipitation and soil moisture. Not really being accounted for is aquifer drawdown without recharge."

Categories / Environment, Regional, Weather

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