‘California Water Supply Dream’: Key Survey Shows Sierra Snowpack Measures 162%

A team from the Department of Water Resources conducts the fourth snow survey of the year at Phillips Station on April 1, 2019. (Credit: DWR)

A team from the Department of Water Resources conducts the fourth snow survey of the year at Phillips Station on April 1, 2019. (Credit: DWR)

A very wet winter across California has resulted in a massive snowpack in the Sierra Nevada, a key indicator for the state’s water supply in the months ahead.

Overall, the Sierra snowpack measures approximately 162 percent of average, which is more than triple what the number was one year ago.

The manual survey conducted at Phillips Station on Tuesday recorded the snowpack there at a depth of 106.5 inches — roughly  200 percent of average for the date at the location — with a snow water equivalent of 51 inches, according to the California Department of Resources.

That’s the fourth best snow water content ever on record at the location, which is near Sierra-at-Tahoe, according to Chris Orrock, a spokesman for DWR.

The snow water equivalent is essentially the depth of water that would result, in theory, if all the snow were to melt at once at the location. At Phillips Station, that amount would be 51 inches.

At least four snow surveys are conducted between January and April, with a fifth one possible in May, officials said. But the one in April is the perhaps the most significant.

“This is typically when we see the deepest snowpack with the most water content,” Orrock explained at a news conference held at Phillips Station. “Our water managers use that to judge what type of melt-off we’re going to get as we get to the warmer, drier summer months.”

The snowpack, he noted, makes up about 30 percent of water storage in the state.

California’s reservoirs are also in great shape, with most at or above their historical averages, according to Orrock. Some are 80 to 90 percent of capacity.

“With full reservoirs and a dense snowpack, this year is practically a California water supply dream,” DWR Director Karla Nemeth said in the news release. “However, we know our long-term water supply reliability cannot rely on annual snowpack alone. It will take an all-of-the-above approach to build resiliency for the future.”

This water year, the state benefitted from a series of 30 atmospheric rivers, including six in the month of February alone, according to Kris Tjernell, deputy director of DWR’s Integrated Watershed Management Program.

He added that in most years, California only gets six of the heavily water-laden storms for the entire water year.

Typically, California gets most of its rain and snow between December and February.

“But as you’ve seen, in March we got some good storms and even here in the beginning of April, it’s still raining and snowing here in Northern California,” Orrock said.

The 2018-2019 water year actually got off to a fairly dry start, with the state experiencing very little precipitation through December, according to Orrock. But that was followed by a very wet January and February, which resulted in record amounts of rain and snow around the state.

While the snowpack data overall is very positive, there is one downside, however: all that water could create the risk of flooding later this spring.

“With great water supply benefits comes some risk,” said Jon Ericson, who heads DWR’s Division of Flood Management. “Based on snowpack numbers, we have the potential for some minor flooding due to melting snow so we remind folks to always stay vigilant and aware.”

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