Above average snowpack boosts Friant Water supply

Feds increase surface water allocation for the Valley’s eastside from 65% to 95% after April 1 snow survey puts California at 113% of average

(Left to right) Governor Gavin Newsom watches Angelique Fabbiani-Leon, State Hydrometeorologist, Water Resources Engineers Anthony Burdock and Andy Reising during the fourth media snow survey of the 2024 season is held at Phillips Station 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)
(Left to right) Governor Gavin Newsom watches Angelique Fabbiani-Leon, State Hydrometeorologist, Water Resources Engineers Anthony Burdock and Andy Reising during the fourth media snow survey of the 2024 season is held at Phillips Station 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)
John Lindt
Published April 5, 2024  • 
10:00 am

LINDSAY – Cities and farms along the Valley’s east side will get nearly all of the surface water they are due this year.

On April 1, the Department of Water Resources conducted the all-important April snow survey, the fourth measurement of the season at Phillips Station near Tahoe. The manual survey recorded 64 inches of snow depth and a snow water equivalent of 27.5 inches, which is 113% of average for this location, the second straight year the snowpack was above normal. The April measurement is critical for water managers as it’s considered the peak snowpack for the season and marks the transition to spring snowmelt into the state’s rivers and reservoirs.

DWR’s electronic readings from 130 stations placed throughout the state indicate that the statewide snowpack’s snow water equivalent is 28.6 inches, or 110% of the April 1 average, a significant improvement from just 28% of average on Jan. 1.

With this data in hand, the US Bureau of Reclamation announced that Friant division Class One water allocation would be increased from its current estimate of 65% to 95%. Class One water is the first 800,000 acre feet of water captured in Millerton Lake usually contracted to cities or water districts without access to groundwater supplies. Class Two water, the next 1.4 million acre feet of water from Millerton, is used for crop irrigation and groundwater recharge.

The increase is welcome news for farmers and communities from Madera south to Bakersfield, who depend on this water supply for crops and drinking water, according to the Friant Water Authority, which oversees operations and maintenance of the Friant-Kern Canal.  

“Quickly reacting to the ever-changing hydrologic conditions is one of the most important actions that our partners at the Bureau of Reclamation can take to ensure the communities and farms on the eastside can survive another year,” Friant Water Authority CEO Jason Phillips said. “The decision today will help to avoid unnecessarily losing water as Millerton Reservoir continues to quickly fill as snow turns to water and will take some pressure off an already over drafted groundwater aquifer.”

California’s reservoirs remain in good shape thanks to state efforts to capture and store as much water as possible from record storms in 2023 and again this season. The State Water Project has increased storage by 700,000 acre-feet at Lake Oroville and by 154,000 acre-feet at San Luis Reservoir since Jan. 1. Statewide, reservoir levels currently stand at 116% of average.

Snowpack in the southern Sierra comes in at 102% of average even as the precipitation outlook for early April looks promising.

The focus now shifts to forecasting spring snowmelt runoff and capturing as much of that water as possible for future use.

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

However, there are challenges ahead as the spring runoff begins. The dry start to the year, soot and ash from burn scars that accelerates snowmelt, and other factors may result in below average spring runoff which can impact water availability. There is also uncertainty about how ongoing pumping restrictions to protect threatened and endangered species in the Delta will impact that allocation forecast.

“California has had two years of relatively positive water conditions, but that is no reason to let our guard down now,” said Dr. Michael Anderson, State Climatologist with DWR. “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. The wild swings from dry to wet that make up today’s water years make it important to maintain conservation while managing the runoff we do receive. 

“Our water years moving forward will see more extreme dry times interrupted by very wet periods like we saw this winter.”

That need to adapt to a changing climate is why Governor Gavin Newsom joined today’s snow survey at Phillips Station to announce the release of the California Water Plan Update 2023. The Water Plan Update 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. Check out the Water Plan Update to learn more about how the plan focuses on key issues including addressing climate urgency, strengthening watershed resilience, and achieving equity in water management.

As part of the state’s climate adaptation efforts, over the past two years, California has worked with local groundwater agencies and state and federal partners to capture as much water as possible to prepare for the next drought. In 2023, more than 1.2 million acre-feet of groundwater recharge was permitted by state agencies, with nearly 400,000 acre-feet of flood water recharged using the Executive Orders issued by Governor Newsom.

On average, the Sierra snowpack supplies about 30% of California’s water needs. Its natural ability to store water is why the Sierra snowpack is often referred to as California’s “frozen reservoir.” Data from these snow surveys and forecasts produced by DWR’s Snow Surveys and Water Supply Forecasting Unit are important factors in determining how DWR provides water to 27 million Californians and manages the state’s water resources.

DWR conducts five snow surveys at Phillips Station each winter near the first of each month, January through April and, if necessary, May.

John Lindt
John Lindt is the publisher of Sierra2theSea.net, an online newspaper covering California’s Central Valley and Central Coast.