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Barring a ‘miracle,’ California snowpack will end the season below average


By Caitlin Kaiser and Stephanie Elam, CNN

Winter is California’s wet season, but a discouraging snow survey performed on Tuesday, along with an ominous (lack of) precipitation record set in Sacramento, shows that California reservoirs will likely not fill up again this year.

“With below-average precipitation and snow up until this point, our team’s latest statewide snow melt forecast are only about 66% of average,” said Sean de Guzman, manager of the Snow Surveys & Water Supply Forecasting Program with the California Department of Water Resources (DWR).

“That’s not enough to fill up our reservoirs and without any significant storms on the horizon, it’s safe to say that we will end this year dry and continue on into the third year of this drought.”

Snowfall in the Sierra Nevadas is imperative to replenishing the state’s water supply. The DWR surveys the mountains for snow periodically during the winter months in order to better predict water levels later in the year. Tuesday, the third survey of the winter was conducted on the Phillips Station snow course in the Sierra Nevadas.

“The winter season is California’s wet season, when we count on storms from the tropical Pacific to bring precipitation to pack mountains with snow, and fill rivers, streams, reservoirs and soils with badly needed water,” said Justin Mankin, an Assistant Professor of Geography at Dartmouth College.

After a great start to the winter season, de Guzman — standing in a field of snow with blue skies — said, “The majority of the snow pack that we are standing on right here today is basically the same snow that fell during December. There hasn’t been much that has fallen ever since.”

And they are not expecting to see much more.

“Barring any unforeseen miracle March, which we don’t actually see coming, we will end this year below average,” de Guzman added.

Most of California’s major reservoirs are below average. Statewide reservoir storage stands at about 73% of average. Lake Oroville is only 47% full and Lake Shasta, the largest reservoir in the state, is 37% full.

“This past January and February were actually the driest, consecutive January and February on record dating back over 100 years in the Sierra Nevada,” de Guzman said.

It isn’t just the lack of snowfall in the mountains that is setting records this winter. The lack of precipitation in one of California’s major cities is expected to set a dismal rain record Tuesday.

A record winter dry spell

With no precipitation Tuesday, Sacramento will break the record for the longest dry stretch during the wet season — going a whopping 53 days without rain.

Monday, Sacramento tied the record for most consecutive days without rain in the wet season and is looking to blow past the 52-day record, according to the National Weather Service Sacramento.

This dry spell came as a shock after a wet start to the water year, which starts October 1. Sacramento saw an impressive 14.37 inches of precipitation from October to December, which is more than double the average of around six inches for this period. This was followed by only 0.05 of an inch of precipitation in January and only trace amounts in February.

Dry conditions are not unusual for many areas in California; however the timing of these dry conditions is.

“We aren’t getting the amount of rain that we would normally get this time of year. January and February are two of our wettest months of the year, so when we are so dry it’s not great for our numbers,” Hannah Chandler-Cooley, NWS Sacramento meteorologist, told CNN.

There is, however, rain on the horizon for Northern California.

Later this week, Sacramento is forecast to receive the most rain they’ve seen all year. Around a quarter to a half of an inch of rain is forecast, ending the almost two-month long dry spell.

But this won’t be nearly enough to significantly aid the water reserves.

“It is not a lot of rain for this time of year, especially considering how dry we’ve been the last couple of months,” said Chandler-Cooley. “At this point, anything helps. But in terms of the overall water storage, this won’t have much of an impact.”

Lack of rain and snow has left California high and dry

This dry period is just one event within a multiyear drought that contributes to the even longer multidecade megadrought in the area.

“You can think of the current drought as an expression of the longer term megadrought that is unfolding across the American Southwest,” Mankin says.

Stepping back to look at the big picture is important in cases such as these.

“Just like we can have floods in the midst of a drought — a single storm missed does not make a drought like this; a single storm caught does not break a drought like this — we can have multiple wet and dry periods in the context of a much longer dry period,” Mankin added.

Climate change has played a large role in more than two decades of drought.

“Recent work has suggested that the global warming that has occurred to date has made the drought over the last year about 20% worse than it otherwise would have been,” Mankin said.

The most dire consequence of below-average precipitation, especially in the context of a multiyear drought, is that there is less water for everything. Ecosystems, households industries, and agriculture may all suffer from lack of water, Mankin emphasized.

The lack of precipitation in this region has and will continue to lead to devastating impacts on the environment and people who live there, such as the water restrictions placed on the Colorado River for first time.

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