California drought remains severe, statewide snowpack drops to 38%

“As the snowpack continues to melt, the big unknown is how much of that water will make it into reservoirs," state official warns.

Updated: April 3, 2022 - 10:43pm

California officials are calling on residents to step up water conservation efforts after new data showed that the state’s snowpack is at 38% of average – a sign state water officials say reveals the severity of the ongoing drought.

Officials gathered at the Phillips Station in the Sierra Nevada Mountains for a snow survey on Friday, where they recorded only 2.5 inches of snow depth – the equivalent of just one inch of snow water. That total is just 4% of average for the location on April 1, which would typically have about five feet of snow depth at this time of year, officials said Friday.

California Department of Water Resources Director Karla Nemeth said that the conditions are “evocative of 2015,” when California saw its last major drought. She explained that despite seeing a set of wet storms in October and a December “for the record books,” dry conditions left just mere inches of snow to measure on Friday.

“You need no more evidence than standing here on this very dry landscape to understand some of the challenges we’re facing here in California,” Nemeth said during a live-streamed press conference on Friday. “All Californians need to do their part.”

About 30% of California’s water supply comes from snow melt that trickles into reservoirs, according to state data. During a typical year, April 1 is when the state sees a peak in snow water content. Yet, this year, officials believe that the northern Sierra Nevada saw its peak in mid-January.

Sean de Guzman, manager of DWR’s Snow Surveys and Water Supply Forecasting Unit, explained Friday that the majority of the state’s snowpack came from storms in December, and the small amounts of snowfall the state has experienced since then “haven’t been enough to outpace the snow melt.”

“As the snowpack continues to melt, the big unknown is how much of that water will make it into reservoirs,” de Guzman said Friday.

Heavy storms in December put the snowpack at the Phillips Station at 168%, with around 6.5 feet of snow measured on December 30, officials said Friday. But dry conditions since Jan. 1 have caused the snow to dwindle over the last three months.

“January, February and March have been the driest period on record in the Sierra Nevada dating over 100 years,” de Guzman said Friday, later adding that the state has only received half the amount of rainfall as 2013 – the driest calendar year on record.

Officials said Friday that the dismal survey results further emphasize the impact of climate change in California. Below average rain and snow statewide indicate that California is heading into its third consecutive year of dry conditions, officials say, and state residents are being urged to make greater efforts to conserve water.

In July, Gov. Gavin Newsom called on Californians to voluntarily reduce water use by 15%, though the Los Angeles Times reported that between July and January 2022, cumulative savings were only at 6.4%.

Newsom took things a step further last week by signing an executive order asking the State Water Resources Control Board to consider a ban on watering decorative grass outside of commercial buildings and at institutions. The order also called on local water suppliers to move up to the next level in their Water Shortage Contingency Plans in preparation for a water shortage of 20%.

“Today’s snow survey reinforces what we’ve all observed – California just experienced the driest three months on record, and drought is worsening throughout the West,” California Secretary for Natural Resources Wade Crowfoot said in a statement. “Climate-driven water extremes are part of our reality now, and we must all adapt and do our part to save water every day.”

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