California snowpack survey shows below-average numbers

FRESNO, Calif. -- Snowpack in the mountains is crucial for farmers like Daniel Hartwig in the Central Valley.

"We always want to have more snow and reserved up there," says Hartwig.

A good snowpack means more surface water and that means more crops and jobs.

The California Department of Water Resources finished up their second snowpack survey of the year.

At the Phillips Station, the manual survey recorded 40.5 inches of snow depth and a snow water equivalent (SWE) of 14.5 inches, which is 79% of average for this location. The SWE measures the amount of water contained in the snowpack, which provides a more accurate forecast of spring runoff.

On average, the snowpack supplies about 30% of California's water needs as it melts in the spring and early summer, according to the DWR.

"After a good start in December, January saw dry conditions that added little to the Sierra snowpack," said DWR Director Karla Nemeth. "As climate change continues to impact California's snowpack, we look to actions described in the recently released California Water Resilience Portfolio to meet the challenges brought by weather variability to California's water supply."

According to officials, the state is only at 72% of average.

"It would be great if we were blessed with a little bit more, but we are not scared yet. But we do hope the rain starts coming soon," Hartwig says.

The DWR agrees there is no need to panic saying last year ended up well above average by April because after January the state saw a good amount of rain and snow.

"It just shows how unpredictable snow and precipitation are here in California and just how a few atmospheric rivers can really drastically change a water year, like the one we are having now into another wet water year," says Sean de Guzman who is the chief of DWR's Snow Surveys and Water Supply Forecasting Section.

However, if the lack of snow continues it could mean some big changes and decision-making for Hartwig.

"With a low snowpack we have to pump more groundwater unfortunately and that really depletes our savings account that we keep under the ground," he explains.

Even though our mountains are not completely covered with snow, reservoirs in the Valley are pretty close to what they were last year.

This critical snow survey data and forecasts are used by:

  • Operators of flood control projects to determine how much water can safely be stored in a reservoir while reserving space for predicted inflows. This includes the State Water Project, U.S. Bureau of Reclamation for the Central Valley Project, and local reservoir operators.

  • Other state agencies, including the Office of Emergency Services and the State Water Resources Control Board, to develop responses to drought or flood emergencies.

  • Public and private utilities to determine what percentage of their electric energy generation will be hydropower.

  • Water districts to manage surface and groundwater storage, allocate the available supply, plan water deliveries, and coordinate conjunctive use operations.

  • Agricultural interests to determine crop planting patterns, groundwater pumping needs, and irrigation schedules.

  • Researchers to improve snowmelt runoff forecasting methods and perform climate change analyses.