April snow survey shows above average snowpack for second straight season

(From left) Gov. Gavin Newsom watches Angelique Fabbiani-Leon, state hydrometeorologist, Water Resources Engineers Anthony Burdock and Andy Reising during the fourth media snow survey of the 2024 season is held at Phillips Station in the Sierra Nevada. The survey is held approximately 90 miles east of Sacramento off Highway 50 in El Dorado County. Photo taken April 2, 2024. Andrew Nixon / California Department of Water Resources
(From left) Gov. Gavin Newsom watches Angelique Fabbiani-Leon, state hydrometeorologist, Water Resources Engineers Anthony Burdock and Andy Reising during the fourth media snow survey of the 2024 season is held at Phillips Station in the Sierra Nevada. The survey is held approximately 90 miles east of Sacramento off Highway 50 in El Dorado County. Photo taken April 2, 2024. Andrew Nixon / California Department of Water Resources
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News release  

The state Department of Water Resources on Tuesday conducted the April snow survey, the fourth measurement of the season at Phillips Station. The manual survey recorded 64 inches of snow depth and a snow water equivalent of 27.5 inches, which is 113% 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. The April measurement is critical for water managers as it’s considered the peak snowpack for the season and marks the transition to spring snowmelt into the state’s rivers and reservoirs. 

DWR’s electronic readings from 130 stations placed throughout the state indicate that the statewide snowpack’s snow water equivalent is 28.6 inches, or 110% of the April 1 average, a significant improvement from just 28% of average on Jan. 1. 

The focus now shifts to forecasting spring snowmelt runoff and capturing as much of that water as possible for future use, according to a news release from the DWR. 

“It’s great news that the snowpack was able to catch up in March from a dry start this year. This water year shows once again how our climate is shifting, and how we can swing from dry to wet conditions within a season,” DWR Director Karla Nemeth said in the release. “These swings make it crucial to maintain conservation while managing the runoff. Variable climate conditions could result in less water runoff into our reservoirs. One hundred percent snowpack does not mean 100% runoff. Capturing and storing what we can in wetter years for drier times remains a key priority.” 

California’s reservoirs remain in good shape thanks to state efforts to capture and store as much water as possible from record storms in 2023 and again this season, the release said. The State Water Project has increased storage by 700,000 acre-feet at Lake Oroville and by 154,000 acre-feet at San Luis Reservoir since Jan. 1. Statewide, reservoir levels stand at 116% of average. 

However, there are challenges ahead as the spring runoff begins, the release said. The dry start to the year, soot and ash from burn scars that accelerates snowmelt, and other factors may result in below-average spring runoff, which can impact water availability. 

Recently, the State Water Project increased its forecasted allocation of water supplies for the year to 30%, up from an initial 10%, due to the storms in February and March. However, uncertainty about the spring runoff and ongoing pumping restrictions to protect threatened and endangered species in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta has impacted that allocation forecast. 

“California has had two years of relatively positive water conditions, but that is no reason to let our guard down now,” Michael Anderson, state climatologist with DWR, said in the release. “With three record-setting multi-year droughts in the last 15 years and warmer temperatures, a well-above-average snowpack is needed to reach average runoff. The wild swings from dry to wet that make up today’s water years make it important to maintain conservation while managing the runoff we do receive. Our water years moving forward will see more extreme dry times interrupted by very wet periods like we saw this winter.” 

Gov. Gavin Newsom joined Tuesday’s snow survey at Phillips Station to announce the release of the California Water Plan Update 2023. The Water Plan Update sets forth a vision for all Californians to benefit from water resources that are sustainable, resilient to climate change and achieves equity for all communities and benefits the environment, the DWR release said.  

As part of the state’s climate adaptation efforts, over the past two years, California has worked with local groundwater agencies and state and federal partners to capture as much water as possible to prepare for the next drought. In 2023, more than 1.2 million acre-feet of groundwater recharge was permitted by state agencies, with nearly 400,000 acre-feet of flood water recharged using the executive orders issued by Newsom. 

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 important factors in determining how DWR provides water to 27 million Californians and manages the state’s water resources, the release said. 

DWR conducts five snow surveys at Phillips Station each winter near the first of each month, January through April and, if necessary, May. 

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