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Despite California’s 205% Snowpack, Officials Worry About Dry Times Ahead



The state DWR snow survey crew takes the second measurement of the season at Phillips Station in the Sierra Nevada, Wednesday, Feb. 1, 2023. (DWR/Kenneth James)
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The mountain snowpack that supplies a significant amount of California’s water got an incredible boost from recent powerful storms and is outpacing the state’s wettest season on record, state water officials said Wednesday.

But it’s too soon to know if the winter will be a drought-buster, they said.

“California has always experienced some degree of swings between wet and dry, but the past few months have demonstrated how much more extreme those swings are becoming,” said state Department of Water Resources Director Karla Nemeth.

“California is preparing for more intense and dangerous climate swings by bolstering both drought and flood preparation. While today’s results are good news for water supplies, we know from experience how quickly snowpack can disappear if dry conditions return in the months ahead.”

Snowpack Is 205% of the Average to Date

Water content in the state’s mountain snow is 205% of normal to date and 128% of the April 1 average, when the snow is at its historical peak, according to DWR measurements. Historically one-third of California’s water supply has come from melting snow.

DWR’s Sean de Guzman conducted a manual measurement high in the Sierra Nevada at Phillips Station, south of Lake Tahoe, a location that demonstrates California’s varying snow fortunes — sometimes buried in white and sometimes bare ground.

His survey there found a snow depth of 85.5 inches and a water content that was 193% percent of the Feb. 1 average at the location.

The massive snowpack was largely left by nine atmospheric rivers that lasted from late December through mid-January. The storms dumped 32 trillion gallons of rain and snow on the state, allowing state water managers to boost water supplies for farms and cities.

Most of California remains in moderate to severe drought, though that’s better than several months ago when a huge swath of the state was in extreme or exceptional drought, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor.

Weather Pattern Turns Dry

The amount of water in the snowpack, technically described as snow water equivalent, currently outpaces California’s record 1982-83 season, according to the department. But the weather has turned drier, with only modest systems passing through.

Nemeth pointed out that February “is a traditional wet month that is actually starting off pretty dry” and the forecast is for dryness to continue.

She also suggested that the April 1 date is no longer reliable because climate change is changing the timing of the peak snowpack. She also cited recent years in which runoff has dropped off dramatically and storm conditions have shut down and been followed by excessive dry periods.

“I don’t want to be the downer here,” Nemeth said. “But I do want to make sure that everyone understands that we need to exercise caution.”

DWR conducts five media-oriented snow surveys at Phillips Station each winter near the first of each month, January through April and, if necessary, May. The next survey is tentatively scheduled for March 1.

(GV Wire contributed to this article.)

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