U.S.

Lack of Snowpack in California Sierras Has Added to State's Water Woes

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Frank Gehrke, chief of snow surveys for the California Department of Water Resources, measures the snowpack in Phillips, California January 29, 2015. April 1 typically marks the height of the snowpack in the Sierra Nevadas—the brief window after a winter’s worth of snowfall, just before the snow begins to melt. For the past 74 years, the average depth of snow at that spot at Phillips Station on April 1 was 66.5 inches of snow. There’s nothing on the ground now. Max Whittaker/Reuters

On Wednesday, California state employees will trek to the same spot in the Sierra Nevada mountains as they have every April 1 since 1941, to measure the snowpack. Except this time, there will be no snow.

“It’s zero snow. There’s no snow whatsoever on the ground. Even in the shade of trees, there’s no snow anywhere,” says Doug Carlson, the information officer for the California Department of Water Resources. Carlson drove with his wife on Sunday up to Phillips Station, the location about 90 miles east of Sacramento where the snow depth will be measured on Wednesday.

“When you drive up into the mountains, you’re kind of surrounded by peaks that have snow. You can see them. But you turn around and look at the south facing and east facing slopes now, there’s nothing on there at all,” Carlson says. “There ought to be snow everywhere.”

April 1 typically marks the height of the snowpack in the Sierra Nevadas—the brief window after a winter’s worth of snowfall, just before the snow begins to melt. For the past 74 years, the average depth of snow at that spot at Phillips Station on April 1 was 66.5 inches of snow. There’s nothing on the ground now.

The complete lack of snow at Phillips Station is “indicative of what’s happening all across the snowpack,” Carlson says. An electronic reading taken on Sunday from nearly 100 monitoring stations across the Sierra Nevadas showed that the water content in the normally snowy mountains is at just 6 percent of its typical volume.

In other words, scientists typically expect around 28 inches worth of “water equivalency” in the Sierra snowpack by April 1 each year. But this year, there is only about 6 percent of that, or about 1.7 inches worth of water content. According to Carlson, the lowest previous record for statewide water content of the snowpack was 25 percent, the level that it hit last year (and hit once before, in 1977).

"What that means is that there will be no water to replenish our rivers and reservoirs," says Jay Famiglietti, senior water scientist at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Famiglietti made headlines last week when he published an op-ed in the Los Angeles Times explaining that California only has one year worth of water left in its reservoirs.

“It doesn’t look good for us going into the summer,” Carlson says. Runoff from the snowpack in the Sierras is critically important to California. The water from the melting snow typically provides one-third of the total water California uses each year over the summer and the fall months. California’s "wet season" won’t begin again until November, assuming the drought ends.

“All this just puts a huge exclamation point after [the phrase], ‘This is a significant drought,’” he says.

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