Snowpack Falls to 83% of Normal, but Storms are Heading In

by Placerville Newswire / Mar 03, 2016 / comments

The weather gods in California are about to pull back the beach blanket and unleash a soggy salvo — the kind of angry El Niño outpouring that the state’s water managers hope will make up for a confounding lack of rain and snow over the past month.

The storms forecast to start rolling in later this week are expected to boost the meager snowpack in the Sierra Nevada, which California Department of Water Resources surveyors warily measured Tuesday during their monthly tromp through the precious powder.

The statewide water content of the snow was found to be only 83 percent of the historical average for this time of year, a big drop from a month ago, when the “frozen water supply,” as it is called by hydrologists, was 114 percent of normal.

“Clearly a decline from last month’s really good start, but when you have basically only one storm in February, this is where you end up,” said Frank Gehrke, chief of cooperative snow surveys for the Department of Water Resources, after taking measurements under a gleaming blue sky at Phillips Station, off Highway 50 in El Dorado County.

The Phillips snow course is one of 250 locations where surveyors use hollow metal tubes to calculate the depth and water content of the Sierra snow. The measurements are taken during a 10-day window around the first of every month from January to May and are combined with electronic measurements from as many as 130 locations to gauge California’s drinking water supply for the year.

1 site above normal

Gehrke said the water content at Phillips was 27.1 inches, or 5 percent above normal, but added, “Unfortunately, that above average is not reflected virtually at any other location.”

He blamed “remarkably very clear, sunny weather” for melting the snowpack a month earlier than normal. It is, said Gehrke, an indication that the weather pattern known as El Niño cannot be counted on to lift the Golden State out of its four-year drought. 

“Obviously El Niño is not living up to expectations,” Gehrke said. “One thing that’s unique or typical of El Niños is that the southern part of the state tends to be wetter than the north. That is not happening this year.”

Southern Sierra suffering

The southern Sierra, in fact, is suffering the most, with a snowpack that has shrunk to 73 percent of average.

But relief is on the way, said Bob Benjamin, a National Weather Service forecaster. He said a series of potent weather systems are expected to roll in starting Thursday and continue for seven to 10 days. The storms will pick up steam Friday with heavy rain in the Bay Area, significant snow in the Sierra and strong winds everywhere.

“People ask, ‘Where’s El Niño?’ Well, here he is,” Benjamin said. “There will be periods of heavy rain and wind, with three or four systems, and they will run into each other. If this comes to fruition it will put us well above normal for the year in rainfall and could put a dent in the drought.”

A healthy snowpack is crucial because snow makes up 60 percent of the water captured in California’s reservoirs when it melts in the spring — and one-third of the state’s overall water supply in a normal year.

April 1 is key day

The benchmark level is April 1, when the snowpack normally begins to melt and flow into reservoirs. State water officials estimate that the snowpack would have to be at least 150 percent of normal on April 1 for the drought to be considered over.

Last year’s measurement on April 1 was the lowest in the Sierra since records began almost a century ago — not a flake was found at Phillips Station.

“Any time we go through a January, or in this case a February, that is pretty much a dud, it is hard to recover from that,” saidDavid Rizzardo, the chief of water supply forecasting for the hydrology branch of the Department of Water Resources. “We are still in that period where March could be a wet month. ... I don’t think all hope is lost, but it’s hard to ignore the fact that you had one of your wetter months go by with barely any precipitation.”

Reservoirs all low

The problem is reflected in the levels of the state’s reservoirs, which are almost all significantly below normal for this time of year. The largest one, Shasta Lake, is at 83 percent, while Lake Oroville, the second largest, is carrying 76 percent of what it normally holds in March.

Shasta and Oroville carry 80 percent of the state’s reservoir supply, which is used to irrigate 8 million acres of farmland and provide water to close to 30 million people. Most of the other reservoirs, including ones that primarily serve farming communities, are doing worse.

Californians can expect more water rationing this year regardless of how much rain and snow falls in the coming storms. Gov.Jerry Brown extended statewide water restrictions last month through October, meaning cities and towns from the Oregon border to San Diego will face another summer of mandatory cutbacks.

“Obviously we’re better than last year,” Gehrke said, “but still way below adequate for what would be considered any reasonable level of recovery.”

By Peter Fimrite Updated 5:59 pm, Tuesday, March 1, 2016
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