Snow surveyors quantify the depth of California's drought

Issue Date: February 4, 2009
Dave Kranz

An eroding Sierra Nevada snowpack leaves state water officials warning Californians to prepare for what may be "the worst California drought in modern history."

Snow surveyors who visited the Sierra last week for the state's second survey of the winter found less than they had seen a month earlier.

At Phillips Station, south of Lake Tahoe, surveyors measured 34.6 inches of snow last Thursday. During their previous survey at the end of December, surveyors measured the snow depth at 41 inches.

Statewide, surveys and electronic sensors place the water content of the Sierra snowpack at 61 percent of average, down from the 76 percent estimated after the first survey.

The leader of the state Department of Water Resources survey team, Frank Gehrke, said the snowpack varies regionally.

"In the Northern Sierra, we're looking at about 50 percent of average. The Central Sierra is running right about 65 percent and the Southern Sierra about 70," Gehrke said, "so there's a slight increase as you move south, but certainly nothing very encouraging."

Gehrke said the below-average snowpack may produce less runoff because of dry autumn weather.

"The other thing we've got working against us is we had another dry fall, so we are going to lose more of the snow water content to replenishing soil moisture than we would in a normal year," he said.

California Department of Water Resources Director Lester Snow said the survey results, coming at the end of a dry January, indicate that the state is headed for a third dry year.

"We may be at the start of the worst California drought in modern history," Snow warned. "It's imperative for Californians to conserve water immediately, at home and in their businesses."

The snow survey carries ominous implications for farmers who buy water delivered by the federal Central Valley Project or the State Water Project.

The day before the snow survey, Westlands Water District farmers gathered in Five Points, where district officials warned them to expect no water from the CVP this year. The combination of drought and Endangered Species Act restrictions on moving water through the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta may dry up CVP deliveries to Westlands entirely.

The State Water Project has warned its customers that it may deliver only 15 percent of requested water this year.

The state project's main storage reservoir, Lake Oroville, held only 43 percent of average storage at the end of January. The largest reservoir in the CVP system, Lake Shasta, held 44 percent of the 15-year average, and the CVP reported that precipitation on the Sacramento River at Shasta Dam had reached only 37 percent of average for the date.

Although nearly two months of winter remain—leaving time for a Fabulous February or Miracle March of heavy rain and snow—forecasters say the odds of recovery are long.

"Estimates are we'd need another 20 to 30 inches of liquid—upwards of 20 to 30 feet of snow—by April 1 to reach average runoff," DWR Senior Meteorologist Elissa Lynn said. "That gets less and less probable with each passing day."

In an informational bulletin, Lynn noted that the Sierra snowpack provides a third of the state's water supply on its own.

She said that at least 25 water agencies in California have already imposed some form of mandatory conservation measures, and another 66 have implemented incentive pricing or another type of voluntary conservation plan.

(Dave Kranz is editor of Ag Alert. He may be contacted at Reporter Ron Miller contributed to this story.)

Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.