Dry January leads to below average snowpack

Sean de Guzman (right), chief of California Department of Water Resources, Snow Surveys and Water Supply Forecasting Section, inserts the long aluminum snow depth survey pole into the snow during the second media snow survey of the 2020 season at Phillips Station in the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Andy Reising (left), water resources engineer for DWR’s Snow Surveys and Water Supply Forecasting Section, and Jeremy Hill (center), chief of DWR’s Operations Support Branch, help with the survey, held approximately 90 miles east of Sacramento off Highway 50 in El Dorado County.


A manual survey conducted by the Department of Water Resources of the Sierra Nevada snowpack on Thursday showed the location along Highway 50 in the Eldorado National Forest was at about 79 percent of its average this time of year. It’s even lower statewide following a dry January, but officials say there is still time in the water year to recover. 

“After a good start in December, January saw dry conditions that added little to the Sierra snowpack,” said DWR Director Karla Nemeth in a press release. “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.”

Thursday’s manual survey at the Phillips Station showed a snow depth of 40.5 inches, with a snow water content (how much water the snowpack contains if it were to melt) of 14.5 inches. That’s a little over half of what it typically would be on April 1, which is a benchmark for when the state’s snowpack is at its peak. 

Sean de Guzman, DWR’s chief of snow surveys and water supply forecasting, said they will have to wait and see what the next couple months bring in terms of snow and precipitation before determining how the current water year will turn out to be. While it’s been below average so far, he said, the state is in a much better position today when compared to the tail end of the most recent prolonged drought. 

“Honestly, this is decent conditions,” de Guzman said. “It’s below average but nowhere near the drought period. Droughts are a multi-year event and it would take quite a while to get back to those historic levels.”

Extended forecasts don’t show any signs of relief with conditions expected to stay dry through at least mid-February, said John James, water operations project manager for the Yuba Water Agency. Fortunately, he said, the storms that have occurred have been generally colder and produced a proportionate amount of snow.

“Water years with a dry January and February make it difficult to overcome the deficit later in the season as we transition towards spring,” James said. “That being said, a ‘miracle March’ can and does occur, and only a few Atmospheric River storms can make the difference between a dry water year and normal water year.” 

If the water year ends up being dry, the state is in a position to handle it. James said California is coming off a series of generally above average water years, so reservoirs appear to be in a decent position for this time of year – though each day conditions remain dry worsen the state’s outlook. 

“We are hoping some beneficial atmospheric river storms (Category 1 and 2 on the new scale) can push through the persistent ridge of high pressure in February and into March,” James said. “This would quickly improve the water supply, without the risk of too much water in too short a timeframe.” 

DWR will conduct its third snow survey for 2020 next month. The information collected helps create seasonal runoff forecasts and assists operators of flood control projects in managing natural resources.


Recommended for you