Despite the December storms, the snowpack in California remains at its lowest level in a decade.
The initial snow assessment for the season found that California fell short, only reaching 25% of the usual amount. This occurred despite a series of powerful storms that led to floods and landslides along the coast in late December.
Officials recorded a depth of only 7.5 inches at a monitoring station in the Sierra Nevada mountains, located east of Sacramento on Tuesday. The area showed signs of brown vegetation peeking through the thin layer of snow. This is the lowest amount recorded for this time of year in the past ten years throughout the state.
The current survey is significantly different from the previous year’s. Last year, a series of storms created by “atmospheric rivers” occurred alongside cold temperatures, resulting in a record-breaking snowpack. In the first survey of 2023, the snowpack measured at 55.5 inches, which is approximately 177% of the average.
Typically, the majority of rain and snow in California occurs from December to March, with the most snow accumulating by April 1st. This means there is still a chance for the state to make up for any precipitation deficits. The state climatologist, Michael Anderson, explains that it is not uncommon for the water year to have a slow start and that the next measurement on February 1st will provide a better understanding of what to expect for the rest of the year.
There are predictions of storms in the upcoming weeks. However, even if this winter is anticipated to have more precipitation, it is also projected to be warmer. This is concerning for the snow accumulation and water management in California, as they are already dealing with significant fluctuations between wet and dry conditions.
The climate in California has historically experienced fluctuations in water availability, but the current climate crisis is making the situation more extreme. Both policies and infrastructure have been unable to keep up with the changes, which have been worsened by excessive water usage in the state. While current reservoir levels are high, heavy rain instead of snow could lead to damaging floods in the near future, and there may be less water available during the hot and dry months ahead.
Snow is incredibly important to California’s water supply, acting as a kind of water savings account by slowly flowing into streams, soils and reservoirs in the drier seasons. The snowpack in the Sierra provides, on average, roughly 30% of California’s water supply, but that could change in the coming decades as snow becomes more scarce.
According to Andrew Schwartz, the primary researcher at UC Berkeley’s snow lab in the Sierra Nevada, our snow season is getting shorter. In the past, snow was a regular occurrence in October and May, acting as a buffer between autumn and spring. However, these months are now mainly producing rainfall. Additionally, even during the winter months, warm rainstorms are becoming more frequent and melting away snowbanks.
Due to the lack of a beneficial increase in cold weather and precipitation, it is unlikely that California will receive the usual amount of snow this year. Climate scientist Daniel Swain does not have a positive outlook.
During an online discussion on Tuesday, it was stated that the current snowpack levels in California are “absolutely abysmal.” The speaker issued a warning that the state may experience a “snow drought” this year, despite the forecast for more storms.
According to him, there are areas where there is absolutely no snow on the ground, which is a record low for January. He also mentioned that even if there are more frequent snowstorms in the coming months, it may not be enough to reach the average amount of snowfall.
Residents, meanwhile, are reeling from climate whiplash as state officials have warned them to prepare for floods this winter even as they call for more water conservation. Prior to the extreme storms of 2023, California saw its driest three-year period on record, and the hydrological coin will flip again.
The main concern for California, as well as its water authorities, is how to manage a future where winters are warm and wet. The goal is to prevent water supplies from either surging or becoming too scarce.
Swain stated that our current water infrastructure will become more incompatible with the changing climate. The main obstacle is finding ways to handle the growing fluctuations between dryness and excessive rainfall. Our current system is not equipped to handle these extreme changes.
According to Ellen Hanak, a water specialist at the Public Policy Institute of California, the state has made progress in recent years, but there is still more to be done.
Water management officials were unable to fully utilize the abundant precipitation during the cold and wet winter of 2023. According to Hanak and her team’s examination, inadequate surface storage, inadequate coordination, limited water transportation infrastructure, and complex permitting processes hindered efforts to effectively store the excess water. This amount of water could have met the annual needs of 1.2 million typical households in California.
Last year, certain enhancements were made that may benefit the state during instances of rainfall rather than snowfall. Initiatives such as diverting excess water into underground basins, including those that are over-utilized in California’s Central Valley agricultural region, successfully captured approximately 3.8 million acre-feet of water last year, as reported by the Department of Water Resources. Additionally, Governor Gavin Newsom issued a series of executive orders that simplify the regulatory procedures for diverting water, allowing for quicker response to potential flooding risks.
“I believe people will be better prepared to handle major storms this year,” stated Hanak. “However, there is a possibility that we may still not utilize all available resources, particularly if the temperature is not in our favor. It’s important to be adaptable and make necessary changes when necessary.”