Kings River watershed snowpack checks out below average

Water content level at 37% of average for this time of year; watershed faces fourth below-average water season

Right, Sean de Guzman, Manager of the California Department of Water Resources Snow Surveys and Water Supply Forecasting Unit, and Anthony Burdock, Water Resources Engineer in Snow Survey and Water Supply Forecast Unit, measure snowpack while Jordan Thoennes, Water Resources Engineer during the first media snow survey of the 2024 season at Phillips Station in the Sierra Nevada. 

Statewide the snowpack is 25 percent of average, but significant snow is in the next seven day forecast for the Sierras. The survey is held approximately 90 miles east of Sacramento off Highway 50 in El Dorado County. Photo taken January 2, 2024.

Andrew Nixon / California Department of Water Resources
Right, Sean de Guzman, Manager of the California Department of Water Resources Snow Surveys and Water Supply Forecasting Unit, and Anthony Burdock, Water Resources Engineer in Snow Survey and Water Supply Forecast Unit, measure snowpack while Jordan Thoennes, Water Resources Engineer during the first media snow survey of the 2024 season at Phillips Station in the Sierra Nevada. Statewide the snowpack is 25 percent of average, but significant snow is in the next seven day forecast for the Sierras. The survey is held approximately 90 miles east of Sacramento off Highway 50 in El Dorado County. Photo taken January 2, 2024. Andrew Nixon / California Department of Water Resources
Darren Fraser
Published February 2, 2024  • 
11:00 am

FRESNO COUNTY – The first snow survey of the season found that snowpack conditions in the Kings River watershed are well below average for February, but officials are hopeful this week’s storms will return the snowpack level to normal.

“Otherwise, we may be headed for our fourth-below average water season in five years,” said Kings River Watermaster Steve Haugen.

The survey was conducted by the California Cooperative Snow Survey (CCSS), which provides mountain snowpack data for the western United States. CCSS is a partnership of more than 50 state, federal and private agencies.

In a Jan. 31 Kings River Water Association (KRWA) press release, Haugen said the snowpack water content is 6.6 inches – 37% of average for Feb. 1. The water content represents 23% of what is expected when snow conditions peak around April 1.

“We have had quite a few storms since the water year began Oct. 1,” said Haugen, “but (the storms) have not generated much snow.”

This year’s snow depths averaged 28 inches, well below the 54 inches in an average winter.

According to the press release, KRWA staff is waiting to review data from recent Airborne Snow Observatory flights over the Kings basin.

“This detailed snow depth information, coupled with snow survey and modeling efforts, will give water managers precise accounting of snowpack conditions,” said KRWA Assistant Watermaster Matthew Meadows.

Twenty-one snow courses in the Kings River watershed were measured. The deepest snow was at Upper Burnt Corral in the river’s North Fork. The snow depth was 43 inches. Water content was 9.5 inches, 42.7% of average. The lowest snow depth was 12.5 inches at Horse Corral Meadow.

241% OF HISTORICAL AVERAGE

This year’s snowpack pales in comparison to last year’s conditions, after major storms rolled in one after another, dropping record amounts of snow in the Sierra Nevada mountain range. Snow surveyors in January 2023 found an average snow depth of 113 inches. Three snow courses that were measured averaged snow depths of more than 150 inches. The Kings River snowpack was 241% of the historical average for February.

The snowpack continued to mount through March. When it melted, it produced King River’s all-time seasonal runoff.

The Sierra snowpack supplies roughly 30% of California’s water needs. Last year’s record snowpack contributed to the 3.5 million acre-feet of water that was captured in State Water Project reservoirs.

DEALING WITH EXTREMES

Last year’s snowpack was one of the largest in the state’s history. State reservoirs are still above average and strong El Niño conditions continue in the Pacific Ocean. But DWR officials remain wary.

“California saw firsthand last year how historic drought can quickly give way to unprecedented dangerous flooding,” DWR Director Karla Nemeth said in a Jan. 2 DWR press release.

She added, “Although El Niño does not guarantee an above average water year, California is preparing for the possibility of more extreme storms while increasing our climate resilience for the next drought.”

DWR conducted its first snow survey of the season on Jan. 2. The department has 130 stations located throughout the state. Readings from the stations indicate that the statewide snowpack’s snow water content is 2.5 inches, which is 25% of average. Last year, the average was 185%.

Darren Fraser
Reporter