Healthy snowpack means plenty of water for SCV

John King, water resource engineer, of the California Department of Water Resources, Snow Survey Section, conducts the second snow survey of the 2019 season at Phillips Station in the Sierra Nevada Mountains. photo courtesy DWR.

It’s been cold, wet and, in some places, snowy, but the silver lining, so to speak, is that the back-to-back storms have left a snowpack deep enough to provide ample water for the Santa Clarita Valley.

On Thursday, officials with the Department of Water Resources conducted the second Phillips Station snow survey of 2019.

Snowpack testers use a long pole to poke into the snow. What they found was good news for Southern California, said DWR spokesman Chris Orrock.

“The (pole) device they use is based on weight measurement,” he said Friday. “An ounce of snow means an inch of water.”

The manual survey recorded 50 inches of snow depth and a snow water equivalent, or SWE, of 18 inches, which is 98 percent of average for this location. Statewide, the Sierra snowpack is 100 percent of average.

By comparison, on Feb. 1, 2018, measurements at Phillips Station revealed an SWE of 2.6 inches, only 14 percent of the early-February average. Also last year, measurements at this location were at 30 percent of average.

“The snowpack across California is on par with the historical average for this time of year, thanks in no small part to an atmospheric river that brought heavy snowstorms to the Sierra Nevada. Typically, California relies on a handful of large storms like we saw earlier this year.” said DWR Director Karla Nemeth.

“It’s a start, but the next two or three months will determine what it means for our reservoirs and overall water supply,” she said.

SCV Water

The latest snowpack news, however, was well-received by water officials in the SCV.

“To the extent that we have more water, and if we have enough allocation (of water via the State Water Project) then we won’t have to tap into our groundwater and water-banking programs,” said Dirk Marks, water resources manager for the SCV Water Agency.

“This will mean lower costs for ratepayers,” he said Friday.

On Jan. 25, before Thursday’s latest snowpack results, state officials allocated 15 percent of what SCV Water is normally entitled to — but that could change.

“While the snowpack is good news at this point in the precipitation year, it is too early to predict that the conditions will last through the season, or what it might mean for our final allocation,” SCV Water spokeswoman Kathie Martin said Friday.

“Of course, knowing we can have fluctuations between extreme wet and dry from year to year, we still urge a conservation mindset as a way of life in the Santa Clarita Valley,” she said.

Results from snow surveys like the one conducted at Phillips Station are critical to the management of California’s water.

Melted snow

More than 50 local, state and federal agencies work together as part of the Cooperative Snow Surveys Program to collect data from more than 300 snow courses throughout California.

“The data we collect allows us to forecast how much snowmelt will run off into our streams and reservoirs,” said John Paasch, chief of DWR’s Hydrology and Flood Office. “Snowpack is an important factor in determining how DWR manages California’s water resources each year to sustainably meet demands.”

On average, the Sierra snowpack supplies about 30 percent of California’s water needs as it melts in the spring and early summer to meet water demands in the summer and fall.

DWR has conducted manual snow surveys at Phillips Station since 1964, recording both depth and snow water equivalent.

Snow water equivalent is the depth of water that theoretically would result if the entire snowpack melted instantaneously.

That measurement allows for a more accurate forecast of spring runoff.

DWR conducts five snow surveys each winter — near the first of January, February, March, April and May — at Phillips Station in the Sierra Nevada just off Highway 50 near Sierra-at-Tahoe. The Phillips snow course is one of hundreds that will be surveyed manually throughout the winter.

Manual measurements augment the electronic readings from about 100 snow pillows in the Sierra Nevada that provide a current snapshot of the water content in the snowpack.

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