March storms lift snowpack measurements above average

Department of Water Resources April snow survey yields above-average measurements in the Sierra Nevada after months of below-average snowpack

Evergreen trees hold snow near the Phillips Station meadow shortly before the California Department of Water Resources conducts the fourth media snow survey of the 2024 season in the Sierra Nevada. The survey is held approximately 90 miles east of Sacramento off Highway 50 in El Dorado County. Photo taken April 2, 2024.   
  
(Andrew Nixon / California Department of Water Resources)
Evergreen trees hold snow near the Phillips Station meadow shortly before the California Department of Water Resources conducts the fourth media snow survey of the 2024 season in the Sierra Nevada. The survey is held approximately 90 miles east of Sacramento off Highway 50 in El Dorado County. Photo taken April 2, 2024.   (Andrew Nixon / California Department of Water Resources)
Serena Bettis
Published April 4, 2024  • 
9:00 am

SACRAMENTO – From a slow start to a promising peak, the April snow survey conducted by the Department of Water Resources’ (DWR) has revealed an above-average snowpack for this time of the year. Even still, officials are cautioning Californians to keep their guard up due to the fluidity of water conditions.

Conducted on April 2 at Phillips Station, a site south of Lake Tahoe off U.S. Highway 50, the survey recorded a snow depth of 64 inches and a snow water equivalent of 27.5 inches, which is 113% of the average for that location. Statewide, the snow water equivalent is at 110% of the April 1 average. 

“It’s great news that the snowpack was able to catch up in March from a dry start this year,” DWR Director Karla Nemeth said in a press release. “This water year shows once again how our climate is shifting and how we can swing from dry to wet conditions within a season.”

Statewide snow water equivalent measurements taken at the beginning of March were at just 70% of the April 1 average, showing significant improvement in the last month. 

The measurements taken in April typically show the peak snowpack for the season. They are also the averages the state compares to other months to track the progress of the water year. April also marks the arrival of spring and the transition from snowpack to snowmelt, which impacts water availability in the state’s rivers and reservoirs. 

The snow water equivalent is important because it reflects how much water content is stored in the snowpack, which translates to how much water there will be when the snowpack melts. Monthly measurements help inform water managers of whether the state is experiencing wet or dry conditions and allow the DWR to adjust its water supply forecast. 

This year’s snow surveys reflected a slow start to the water year, and although the snowpack did consistently increase in the February and March surveys, the snowpack was still below average for what the DWR would have liked to see. 

When considering how conditions can change, Nemeth said the swings between wet and dry conditions prove how crucial it is “to maintain conservation while managing the runoff.” Nemeth said that a “100% snowpack” does not mean there will be 100% runoff, and variable conditions over the next few months could still result in less water runoff into state reservoirs. 

“Capturing and storing what we can in wetter years for drier times remains a key priority,” Nemeth said. 

The DWR said that state reservoirs are “in good shape” thanks to those continued efforts to capture and store water. According to the press release, the State Water Project increased storage by a combined 854,000 acre-feet at Lake Oroville and San Luis Reservoir, and statewide reservoir levels are at 116% of the average.

On March 22, the State Water Project increased its forecasted allocation of water supplies for the year, as requested by public water agencies, from 10% to 30%. Even still, the DWR said that uncertainty around spring runoff — which could be impacted by soot and ash from burn scars, as well as other weather conditions — and pumping restrictions in the Delta have impacted that allocation forecast.

“California has had two years of relatively positive water conditions, but that is no reason to let our guard down now,” DWR State Climatologist Michael Anderson said. “With three record-setting multi-year droughts in the last 15 years and warmer temperatures, a well above-average snowpack is needed to reach average runoff.” 

In line with the conversation on remaining vigilant and forward-thinking when it comes to water year conditions and water supply allocations, Gov. Gavin Newsom joined the DWR snow survey team at Phillips Station to announce the publication of the 2023 update to the California Water Plan. 

The California Water Plan “sets forth a vision for all Californians to benefit from water resources that are sustainable, resilient to climate change and achieves equity for all communities and benefits the environment,” according to the DWR.

“In the past few years alone, we’ve gone from extreme drought to some of the most intense rain and snow seasons on record, showcasing the need for us to constantly adapt to how we manage our water supplies,” Newsom said. 

The water plan outlines seven objectives, including improving the resiliency of built and natural infrastructure, supporting and learning from Tribal water and resource management practices, increasing flexibility of regulatory systems and providing guidance and resources for implementation of actions toward water resilience.

“The water plans and strategies we’re implementing are each targeted components of our overall effort to deliver clean water to Californians by capturing, storing and conserving more water throughout the state; this plan is a critical component of that effort,” Newsom said.

Serena Bettis
General Assignment Reporter