By Signal Staff
The California Department of Water Resources on Tuesday conducted the first snow survey of the season at Phillips Station — and the results showed a below-average snowpack for this time of year.
The manual survey recorded 7.5 inches of snow depth and a snow water equivalent of 3 inches, which is 30% of average for this location. The snow water equivalent measures the amount of water contained in the snowpack and is a key component of DWR’s water supply forecast. Statewide the snowpack is 25% of average for this date. Phillips Station, near the south side of Lake Tahoe, has long served as a location for the state’s manual snowpack measurements.
The snowpack measurements in the Sierra Nevada are an indicator of the water supply outlook for the state as a whole and for the Santa Clarita Valley in particular. The SCV Water Agency supplies local customers with water drawn from a combination of the State Water Project, local groundwater and purchased water that the agency has “banked” in other locations.
After one of the largest snowpacks on record last season, the start of this water year has been dry despite some recent storms in the last weeks of December that provided a small boost in the snowpack. While state reservoirs are still above average for this time of year and strong El Niño conditions are present in the Pacific Ocean, the outlook for the rest of the winter remains highly uncertain, state water officials said.
“California saw firsthand last year how historic drought conditions can quickly give way to unprecedented, dangerous flooding,” DWR Director Karla Nemeth said in a news release. “Although El Niño does not guarantee an above-average water year, California is preparing for the possibility of more extreme storms while increasing our climate resilience for the next drought.”
DWR’s electronic readings from 130 stations placed throughout the state indicate that the statewide snowpack’s snow water equivalent is 2.5 inches, or 25% of average for this date, compared to 185% on this date last year.
“While we are glad the recent storms brought a small boost to the snowpack, the dry fall and below-average conditions today shows how fast water conditions can change,” Sean de Guzman, manager of DWR’s Snow Surveys and Water Supply Forecasting Unit, said in the DWR release. “It’s still far too early to say what kind of water year we will have, and it will be important for Californians to pay attention to their forecasts and conserve water, rain or shine.”
Ali Elhassan, director of water resources for SCV Water, said in a prepared statement that the first set of measurements doesn’t necessarily predict the rest of the winter’s weather — and in any case, the agency plans ahead for multiple scenarios.
“The first snow survey informs us where we are now in comparison to other years, but it doesn’t give us any indication of what is to come or the outlook for the rest of the winter,” Elhassan’s statement said. “To enhance adaptability in water supply planning for climate variability, SCV Water has been implementing monitoring systems for water resources and establishing early warning systems to promptly respond to changing climate patterns. The agency also uses advanced hydrological models that account for diverse climate scenarios to better understand potential variations in water availability.”
In addition, Elhassan said, the agency adheres to a long-held philosophy of acquiring water from a multitude of sources to help the SCV weather the inevitable dry years: “It is also important to note that SCV Water has invested historically in developing a diverse portfolio of water sources, including water from the State Water Project, groundwater, banking and recycled water, to mitigate the impact of climate fluctuations.”
Last year, California experienced climate whiplash when the driest three year-period on record ended with extreme storm events in January and March that caused damage and flooding across the state. These extreme weather events highlight the need for all Californians to prepare for flood risk, the DWR release said, adding the state agency is working with tribal, federal, state and local partners to provide flood resources and training to communities across the state.
One year ago, the January survey at the Phillips location showed a water content of 177% of average and was followed by a series of damaging atmospheric river storms in January and March that caused flood impacts across the state and produced one of the largest snowpacks on record.
On average, the Sierra snowpack supplies about 30% of California’s water needs. Its natural ability to store water is why the Sierra snowpack is often referred to as California’s “frozen reservoir.”
Data from these snow surveys and forecasts produced by DWR’s Snow Surveys and Water Supply Forecasting Unit are factors in determining how DWR manages the state’s water resources. Due to last year’s above-average conditions and historic snowpack, a total of 3.5 million acre-feet of water was captured in State Water Project reservoirs.
Lake Oroville, the SWP’s largest reservoir, is currently at 130% of average to date and state water managers are prepared to capture and store as much water as possible, the DWR release said.