Rainless January ends wet winter optimism, indicates a prolonged drought

California Department of Water Resources latest snowpack survey has statewide snowpack at 92% of average, down from 160% at the end of 2021

TULARE COUNTY – A wet end to 2021 brought temporary relief to the parched Central Valley, but a rainless January in Tulare County has dried up any optimism on an end to the drought. 

Climatetoolbox.org precipitation datasets show January 2022 was the driest year on record for Tulare County, much of the San Joaquin Valley and the Sierra Nevada mountain range. 

The California Department of Water Resources’ (DWR) latest snow survey at Philips Station in the Sierra Nevada has the statewide snowpack at 92% of average for Feb. 1, compared to 160% at the end of 2021. DWR Director Karla Nemeth said California is definitely still in a drought. 

“A completely dry January shows how quickly surpluses can disappear,” Nemeth said. “The variability of California weather proves that nothing is guaranteed and further emphasizes the need to conserve and continue preparing for a possible third dry year.” 

The Southern Sierra snowpack is not faring as well as the Northern Sierra. Water supply forecasts for the south San Joaquin Valley are below average due to the lack of rain and snow in the region. 

December, January and February are typically the wettest months of California’s water year. With two of the three in the books, the window to make up for the previous two winters that were California’s fifth- and second-driest water years on record is quickly closing. 

Surveyors for DWR take regular measurements of the Sierra snowpack during the winter. Their Dec. 30, 2021 survey reveals that snow depth was at 78.5 inches and 20 inches of snow water equivalent. At the time that was 202% of average. Obviously the wetless January has degraded any optimism toward a regular wet year.

But this wasn’t something that Nemeth at DWR hadn’t been expecting. In fact they warned residents to temper their expectations following the deluge storms from December.

“We could not have asked for a better December in terms of Sierra snow and rain,” Nemeth said. “But Californians need to be aware that even these big storms may not refill our major reservoirs during the next few months. We need more storms and average temperatures this winter and spring, and we can’t be sure it’s coming. So, it’s important that we continue to do our part to keep conserving – we will need that water this summer.”

On average, the Sierra snowpack supplies about 30% of California’s water needs and the snowpack is an important factor in determining how DWR manages the state’s water resources. Its natural ability to store water is why the Sierra snowpack is often referred to as California’s “frozen reservoir.” However, DWR says significant climate changes have dramatically reduced the snow pack.

“California continues to experience evidence of climate change with bigger swings between wet and dry years and even extreme variability within a season. A wet start to the year doesn’t mean this year will end up above average once it’s all said and done,” Sean de Guzman, manager of DWR’s Snow Surveys and Water Supply Forecasting Unit said late last year.

The department stated in December that Californians only need to look to last winter and the state’s disappointing snowpack runoff due to high temperatures, dry soil and evaporation as a reminder that changes to climate mean it will take more than an average year to recover from drought.

Start typing and press Enter to search