Sierra Nevadas shrouded in snow, DWR still suspects dry year

The Department of Water Resources finds that snowfall reached 177% above average at Phillips Station, but isn’t convinced it will be a good water year

CALIFORNIA – It was a white Christmas this year, but as surveyors measured the heavy snowfall from this season, the Department of Water Resources said it looks strikingly similar to last year, which was one of the driest years on record.

The Department of Water Resources (DWR) conducted the first snow survey of the season at Phillips Station in the Sierra Nevadas, and found 55.5 inches of snow depth. For this time of year, the amount of snow recorded is 177% above average for the location. This snowy season is similar to last year, when California saw some early rainstorms and heavy snowfall. However this led to having the driest January through March on record in state history, according to DWR’s press release.

DWR conducts five media-oriented snow surveys at Phillips Station each winter near the first of each month, January through April and, if necessary, May. The next survey is tentatively scheduled for February 1.

This season, California is not only seeing heavy snowfall, but is also expected to see continued rain over the next seven days, with the threat of flooding in parts of California. The flooding, however, is not a good sign according to DWR director Karla Nemeth. Rather, it reflects the extreme fluctuation between wet and dry seasons.

“The significant Sierra snowpack is good news, but unfortunately these same storms are bringing flooding to parts of California,” Nemeth said in a statement. “This is a prime example of the threat of extreme flooding during a prolonged drought as California experiences more swings between wet and dry periods brought on by our changing climate.”

Last January, the Phillips survey showed the seventh highest measurements on record. However, those results were followed by three months of extremely dry conditions, and by April 1, the Phillips survey measurements were the third lowest on record. 

“Big snow totals are always welcome, but we still have a long way to go before the critical April 1 total,” said Sean de Guzman DWR’s Snow Surveys and Water Supply Forecasting unit manager. “If January through March of 2023 turn out to be similar to last year, we would still end the water year in severe drought with only half of an average year’s snowpack.”

This heavy snowfall has not only been measured at Phillips Station’s survey, but also DWR’s electronic readings from 130 stations placed throughout the state. Measurements indicate that statewide, the snowpack’s snow water equivalent is 17.1 inches, or 174 percent of average for this date. 

This January’s results are not only similar to last year, but also similar to results in 2013. In 2013, the first snow survey of the season also provided promising results after a wet December. However, the following January and February were exceptionally dry, and the water year ended as the driest on record for its time. This was replicated in 2022.

On average, the Sierra snowpack supplies about 30% of California’s water needs and 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.” A below-average snowpack impacts water users across the state, putting further stress on the environment and critical groundwater supplies.

Due to these increasing swings from dramatically wet to dry conditions, Governor Gavin Newsom’s recently released water strategy, named “California’s Water Supply Strategy, Adapting to a Hotter, Drier Future.” It calls for investing in new projects and technologies that will modernize how the state manages water. Hotter and drier weather conditions spurred by climate change could reduce California’s water supply by up to 10% by the year 2040.

In alignment with Newsom’s strategy, DWR’s recently updated Central Valley Flood Protection Plan identifies actions needed to adapt much of California’s flood infrastructure to a rapidly changing climate. Current climate research indicates the state will see bigger swings from extreme heat and dry conditions to larger and more powerful storms that deliver temporary large boosts to the state snowpack as well as flood risk. 

The initiatives in Newsom’s plan cost $8 billion in state investments over the last two years to help conserve the water it will need to keep up with the increasing pace of climate change, generating enough water in the future for more than 8.4 million households by 2040. 

According to Newsome’s press release, this approach to California’s water supply management recognizes the latest science that indicates the American West is experiencing extreme, sustained drought conditions caused by hotter, drier weather. Unfortunately, there will be less water to meet the state’s needs due to a handful of reasons. The warming climate means that a greater share of the rain and snowfall California receives will be absorbed by dry soils, consumed by thirsty plants, and evaporated into the air. 

To help make up for the water supplies California could lose over the next two decades, the strategy prioritizes actions to capture, recycle, de-salt and conserve more water. These actions include:

  • Creating storage space for up to 4 million acre-feet of water, which will allow us to capitalize on big storms when they do occur and store water for dry periods
  • Recycling and reusing at least 800,000 acre-feet of water per year by 2030, enabling better and safer use of wastewater currently discharged to the ocean.
  • Freeing up 500,000 acre-feet of water through more efficient water use and conservation, helping make up for water lost due to climate change.
  • Making new water available for use by capturing stormwater and desalinating ocean water and salty water in groundwater basins, diversifying supplies and making the most of high flows during storm events.

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