California’s snowpack was measured at 174 percent of the historical average for the year Tuesday, boosted by recent storms that drenched the state during the holidays and brought snow to the mountains.
The state could see even more rain and snow this week and into the weekend, bringing much-needed water supplies.
“While we see a terrific snowpack—and that in and of itself may be an opportunity to breathe a sigh of relief—we are by no means out of the woods when it comes to drought," said Karla Nemeth, director of the California Department of Water Resources.
The state could still face another year of drought this year as water reservoirs remain well below capacity.
State water officials took the year’s first official measurements of snow and water content near Phillips, a town east of Sacramento in the central Sierra Mountains, finding levels well above average for this time of year.
The snowpack in Phillips is 177 percent of the average. It was measured at 55.5 inches, which was enough to store 17.5 inches of water, according to Sean de Guzman, manager of the department’s snow surveys and water supply forecasting unit.
“We’ll take any kind of [precipitation] we can get, if it’s rainfall or snow at this point, just because we are in such a severe drought,” de Guzman said.
This week’s expected storm system should be colder and produce more snowpack. Significant flooding from local rivers and creeks throughout the state should continue for the next several days, along with strong winds, officials said.
The good news was enough for officials to breathe a sigh of relief but the situation could still take a turn as the year continues. A similar scenario unfolded last year when officials measured decent snowpack at the beginning of the year only to have the driest period on record from January to March.
California has received above-average rainfall so far this water year, which began Oct. 1, according to state climatologist Mike Anderson.
“Things are looking pretty good,” Anderson said during a press conference Tuesday. “Certainly a lot better than we have been in past years. But there are still a few pockets where conditions aren’t quite back up to average.”
The “triple dip La Niña” weather phenomenon that returned to California and delivered for the third consecutive year in 2022 is beginning to fade, according to the World Meteorological Organization.
The weather pattern brings large-scale cooling of the ocean surface temperatures in the central and eastern Pacific Ocean, along with changes in the tropical atmospheric circulation, namely winds, pressure, and rainfall. It usually has the opposite impact on weather and climate as El Niño, which brings more rainfall, according to the organization.
California is moving into more neutral weather conditions and could see El Niño conditions return in the fall, Anderson said.
“We’ll have to keep an eye on that, but we are in transition,” Anderson said.
The state is about a third of its way through its wettest season, the state’s drought manager Jeanine Jones said.
“We hope that we’ll continue going forward with good water supply conditions,” Jones said.
State water supplies are still overcoming a deficit from the recent drought and groundwater supplies have declined. It will take some time and more water to recover that storage, which is why officials can’t say that the drought is over, she said.
California’s largest surface water source is the Colorado River and supplies looked good in that watershed, Jones said.
However, the state’s reservoir system is looking at record-low storage levels. The state will continue to assess water supplies and should know by March how much water will be available to supply the state’s water projects, Jones added.
Even though the state has seen above-average rain and now this season, the reservoirs are still below average. Lake Oroville, south of Redding in northern California, is only about 35 percent of capacity, and Lake Shasta, the state’s largest reservoir, was at 34 percent capacity, said de Guzman, of the California Department of Water Resources.
The past three years have been some of the driest years on record in California. State officials have severely limited water deliveries to farmers and Gov. Gavin Newsom has urged residents and businesses to conserve water.
Roughly a third of California's water supply comes from melting snow in the Northern California mountains. About three-fourths of California's rain and snow come from the watersheds north of Sacramento. But about 80 percent of the state's water demand comes from Southern California, where most of the people live.