Last week the California Department of Water Resources conducted the third snow survey of the new year at Phillips Station in the Sierra Nevada Mountains. The Phillips Station survey site is 90 miles east of Sacramento, in El Dorado County, and is one of several hundred survey sites throughout the state. A snow depth of 113 inches was recorded by the survey team with a snow water equivalent of 43.5 inches. This is almost twice the level recorded at the same location last month. Due to several atmospheric rivers passing through the state during the last month the current snowpack sits at 153% or normal for the state. The snow water equivalent is an important tool utilized by water managers to estimate water run off levels during the spring and summer months. Explained simply, snow water equivalent is the depth of water that would result if the snowpack were to instantly melt.
Why is this important? Besides the water needs of the 39.5 million people who call California home, there is also the water requirement demanded by the largest agriculture producing state in the nation. The San Joaquin Valley of California produces 80% of the Almond crop worldwide, not to mention other crops such as tomatoes, citrus, watermelons, corn, alfalfa, and almost too many more to name. On top of that the state has a thriving dairy cattle industry, as well as many other forms of livestock production from sheep and goats, to pork, chicken, squab, etc. Throw in aquatic environments statewide which several fisheries, including different species of Salmon to Steelhead, depend on, tourism through water sports at the state’s numerous lakes and reservoirs, a strong sport-fishing economy, and hundreds of protected wetlands for waterfowl (both indigenous as well as migratory), and one realizes just how massive the water requirements for California are.
Northern California has received record amounts of rain over the first two months of this year. The sate’s largest reservoirs are all currently near capacity. Lake Oroville is currently 84% of average capacity for this date while New Melones Reservoir is currently 137%. Many of these reservoirs have begun releasing water downstream in expectation of future rainfall accumulation. This is when the importance of the snowpack becomes evident. Once the rain ends, the reservoirs will be releasing water to support all of the needs discussed earlier in this article. As spring progresses into summer and our temperatures begin to rise the Sierra snow will begin to melt and run downstream to be collected in our reservoirs as well as replenish our underground aquifers. As the summer continues on into autumn, this snow run off will support approximately 30% of the water needs of the state. Without this snow run off, California will find itself in a tough position come fall. We may see areas of the state running dry like we saw just two short years ago. The state’s annual snowpack is often the deciding factor between a drought year and a non-drought year. So the next time you finish mowing your lawn, on a 102 degree afternoon in early September, and you reach for the garden hose to cool off stop and give a moment of thought to the snow. – The Rambler