Snow Survey

Sean de Guzman, chief of DWR’s Snow Surveys and Water Supply Forecasting Section, carries the measure tape to the next sampling point for the third snow survey of the 2020 season at Phillips Station in the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Helping with the survey are Lauren Miller, engineer DWR’s Snow Surveys and Water Supply Forecasting Section and Ramesh Gautum, Chief California Cooperative Snow Surveys Program. The survey site is approximately 90 miles east of Sacramento off Highway 50 in El Dorado County. Photo taken January 2, 2020. Jonathan Wong / California Department of Water Resources, FOR EDITORIAL USE ONLY

Precipitation might be below average for this time of year, but cold weather storms in November and December have set California up for a good start to its water year 2020.

The California Department of Water Resources held its first manual snow survey of the year on Thursday at Phillips Station in the Sierra Nevada Mountains. The surveys look at snow depth and snow water content, which are metrics that can help experts better forecast for spring runoff. 

The survey found that the snowpack at the particular location was 97 percent of its average for January – 33.5 inches of snow depth and a snow water content of 11 inches. DWR typically conducts manual snow surveys at the location four or five times per year. 

The state also has 130 other stations scattered throughout the state that track snowpack. Electronic measurements throughout the state indicated California’s snowpack was 90 percent of its average for the date.

“It’s still too early to predict what the remainder of the year will bring in terms of snowpack,” said Sean DeGuzman, chief of DWR’s snow surveys and water supply forecasting section. “Climate change is altering the balance of rain and snow in California. That is why it is important to maintain our measurements of the snowpack to document the change in addition to having critical information to forecast spring runoff.” 

The state typically receives about 75 percent of its annual precipitation between December and March, with the bulk coming from atmospheric rivers. 

Curt Aikens, general manager of the Yuba Water Agency said while it is way too soon to tell how the water year will end up, Yuba County is sitting in good shape currently. New Bullards Bar Reservoir storage was at 116 percent of its average on Thursday, largely due to a higher carryover storage from the year prior, he said. And while rainfall totals are a bit down this year, he said, the snowpack is doing well at 121 percent of its historical average (based on the Robinson Cow Camp snow gage data). 

“In summary, precipitation and rainfall are down, snowpack and reservoir storage are up,” Aikens said. “December, January, and February are the three wettest months of the year, so we are very early in the season. It will take the next two to three months to truly determine how good the water year will be. Overall, water conditions are good enough that I don’t expect any water supply issues in Yuba County.” 

The state’s snowpack supplies about 30 percent of California’s water needs as it melts in the spring and early summer. DWR plans to conduct its next manual snow survey on Jan. 30.

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