Snowpack report signals bad news for California’s drought

‘Some may say this is a wake up call. But the alarm has already gone off’

The Sierra Nevada roughly translates to “snowy mountain range” in Spanish, but as the world warms, the dense snowpack that gave the high peaks its name is waning.

As the summer months inch closer, state officials have made clear that the drought gripping the state is set to continue based on snowpack data released Friday.

“Some may say this is a wake-up call. I disagree. The alarm has already gone off,” said Wade Crowfoot, the state’s Natural Resources Secretary, standing at Phillips Station, a scarred and snowless meadow just west of Lake Tahoe that burned in last year’s Caldor Fire. “Climate change is here, and climate change has been here in California and across the American West.”

The first of April marks an important date for state water managers because it indicates when the snowpack is at its peak for its water content, said Sean de Guzman, manager of the Snow Surveys and Water Supply Forecasting section of the Department of Water Resources (DWR).

“California is now facing a third consecutive year of dry conditions and extending this ongoing drought,” he said. “We have less snow right now than we did last year at this time.”

The reason for concern is not purely the decline of the snow-capped mountains but also because a third of the state’s water supply is sourced from the Sierras. Data collected from such surveys determine how much water will be allocated to reservoirs and residents in the warm, dry summer months ahead.

The survey recorded Friday at Phillips Station, one of 260 sites DWR monitors, revealed just 2.5 inches of snow depth and a snow water equivalent of one inch – 4% of average. Snow depth is the overall snow on the ground, while the snow water equivalent is the amount of snowmelt that turns into freshwater. Statewide, the snowpack was 38% of average, said de Guzman.

The dismal results came on the heels of news that the start of this year has been the driest in a century. It’s a reality that prompted Governor Gavin Newsom to issue an executive order to encourage local water authorities to activate stricter conservation measures.

“Conservation at this point in time is really the largest piece of the puzzle that we have a direct influence on,” said Andrew Schwartz, the station manager and lead scientist at UC Berkeley’s Central Sierra Snow Laboratory. “We can’t control the weather. We can’t control how fast our snowpack melts or how much of our snowpack there is every year. Ultimately, we have to be able to alter our own behavior to use the water that we do have efficiently.”

Although San Francisco’s water exists separately from the State Water Project that feeds much of the Central Valley and Southern California, the Tuolumne watershed, managed by the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission, currently sits at about 41% of average, noted Schwartz, “so San Francisco might need to worry a little bit, too.”

Another challenge is that warming temperatures are shifting the behavior of snow and complicating forecasters’ ability to accurately predict spring runoff.

“The problem — and this is a really big issue — is that it turns out that more and more of the snow isn’t running off. It’s what we call sublimating, which means it’s literally evaporating into the air,” said Peter Gleick, a scientist and president emeritus of the Oakland-based Pacific Institute.

Last year, the April snowpack essentially vanished, never turning into the runoff Californians depend on for drinking water, agriculture and industrial uses, and causing headaches for DWR, which already had allocated the water.

“They grossly overestimated how much water, even the little bit of snow that we got, would produce,” said Gleick. “This year, the worry is that even that amount of snow will again not produce the amount of runoff that the models tell us to expect. And that makes everything even worse.”

Although evaporation has always occurred, said Schwartz, fire scars like that at Phillips Station also accelerate these conditions. “In these very large fire scars that we have, evaporation actually increases a substantial amount because of the increased temperatures and higher winds that result after the trees are damaged or moved by the fires,” he said.

Another issue, experts say, is that California is operating a system of dams and infrastructure based on an old water system.

“We built an entire system on a different climate,” said Caitrin Chappelle, an associate director of the California Water Program at the Nature Conservancy. “What we’re seeing right now, literally right now, is that it’s so much warmer in the Sierras that that water is either melting faster — it’s not maintaining its snowpack — or it’s coming down quicker or it’s just sinking into the ground. It’s not creating a slow release that we’re used to in our system.”

While the fierce winter storms that blanketed the Sierras in snow this year have helped alleviate some of the drought impacts from last year’s paltry precipitation, many of California’s reservoirs remain below average, leaving state officials once again imploring Californians to take further actions to conserve water.

“The fact that the climate is changing is clear,” said Crowfoot. “The question is: What are we going to do about it?”

A portion of the survey site is shown shortly before the snow survey on April 1 in the Sierra Nevada. The survey is held approximately 90 miles east of Sacramento off Highway 50 in El Dorado County. (Ken James/California Department of Water Resources)

A portion of the survey site is shown shortly before the snow survey on April 1 in the Sierra Nevada. The survey is held approximately 90 miles east of Sacramento off Highway 50 in El Dorado County. (Ken James/California Department of Water Resources)

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