Thursday, March 2, 2017

The average snowpack is at 185-percent of normal conditions in the Sierra Nevada mountains and could signal the end of California's five-year drought.

Thursday, March 02, 2017 06:22 AM

FRESNO, California (KFSN) -- A near-record snowpack measurement in the Sierra Nevada mountains could signal the end of California's five-year drought.

The average snowpack across the entire range is at 185-percent of normal conditions according to the State Department of Water Resources.

The sierra provides about a third of California's water when the snow melts in the spring and summer. The snowpack has been fueled by an extremely wet winter.

The state's chief snow surveyor says the snowpack in some places is nearing levels last seen in 1983.


Snow survey reveals CA water content at 185% of average

March doesn't break record, but still bodes well for 2017
Updated: 8:18 PM PST Mar 1, 2017

Show Transcript

The Sierra snowpack survey conducted Wednesday revealed that the northern Sierra water content is well above average for this time of the year and bodes well for runoff later in the year.

Numbers manually taken by water officials at the Phillips Station in El Dorado County revealed 43.4 inches of water content, which is 179 percent of the long-term average for March 1, and a snow-depth of 112.7 inches.

The water content did not break the record of 56.4 inches for that station, but Frank Gehrke, of the California Department of Water Resources, said it is "a pretty phenomenal snowpack."

"It bodes very well for runoff much longer than we have had in the past four or five years," Gehrke said. "It's a very, very good indicator of good surface water supplies as we head into spring and summer.

As of March 1:

  • The northern Sierra is 159 percent of average.
  • The central Sierra is 190 percent of average.
  • The southern Sierra is 201 percent of average.

The central and southern regions are tracking "very close" to 1983, which is when the maximum snowpack was recorded statewide.

The northern Sierra is still a little below the record, but it is still way above the average, Gehrke said.

On Feb. 2, the snowpack at the Phillips Station was at 173 percent of average, or 28.1 inches of water content. The "robust" snowpack measured a depth of 90.3 inches.

During the monthly snow survey, a column of snow is collected and weighed to determine how much water it holds.

Although the manual survey, like the one conducted Wednesday at Phillips Station, gives more accurate numbers as to where the snowpack stands, automated sensors at other stations across the state revealed higher percentages before the manual surveys.

In the central Sierra, sensors indicated the water content was at 49 inches, or 193 percent of average, while the southern Sierra was at 204 percent of average.

March is still considered a wet month, and the above-normal snowpack promises to bring large amounts of water to California reservoirs.

Although Northern California is considered to be at a plateau, Gehrke said there shouldn't be anything to worry about heading into March.

"There's nothing to say that it (storm activity) won't take off again," Gehrke said. "We've had very big Marches in the past -- so-called 'Miracle Marches' -- that bailed us out some years ago, when prior to that, we had very dry conditions. So you can readily anticipate fairly good storm activity in March and quite often through April."

April 1 is considered the time when California's snowpack typically reaches its peak.


It's the burning question on everyone's mind. While most of California is considered to be out of the drought, Gehrke would not speculate as to whether the recent snow totals help in the state's ongoing drought.

However, Gehrke did offer insight into what water officials look at.

"The concern is really the groundwater. That's the big issue that really became very evident during the dry spell," Gehrke said. "And that doesn't pop back after one snow year."

Gehrke explained that snow and runoff contributes a great deal in terms of the groundwater recharge by way of some complex geological processes, but it is more of a long-term process.

"Surface water is kind of a seasonal thing," Gehrke said. "In other words, clearly we've made up our seasonal deficiency, but the groundwater is a whole different kettle of fish. It's a much longer cycle."

In addition, groundwater is a lot more difficult to measure.

"We don't have the ability to go in and quickly make measurements of the recovery," Gehreke said. "It's a much more complex system than the surface water."