California’s snowpack is dwindling after a dry January

California’s second snow report of the season followed one of the state’s driest Januarys on record, and officials warn that a third dry year is possible unless more rain and snow arrives soon.

Surveyors from the California Department of Water Resources gathered Tuesday at Phillips Station near South Lake Tahoe to announce their latest findings. Nationwide snowpack has shrunk to 92% of the average for the date, they said.

When it was first polled about a month ago – after December’s rain and snow spate – that figure was 160%.

“January basically wiped out every head start we had as we neared the end of winter,” said Sean de Guzman, snow survey manager at the Department of Water Resources.

January and February are typically the heart of California’s rainy season, but the unusually dry and sunny start to the year has already contributed to a few inches of snowmelt and, more importantly, a lack of accumulation, De Guzman said.

He and other officials are growing concerned that the state’s recent gains could soon dry up without further rainfall in the coming weeks.

The California Department of Water Resources conducted the second snow survey of the season at Phillips Station.

The California Department of Water Resources conducted the second snow survey of the season at Phillips Station. The survey found 48.5 inches of snow cover with 19 inches of snow water content. That’s 109% of the historical average for this time of year. But nationally, the water in the snowpack is 92%.

(Kenneth James/California Department of Water Resources)

“A completely dry January shows how quickly excess can disappear,” DWR Director Karla Nemeth said in a statement. “California’s weather variability proves that nothing is guaranteed and further underscores the need to save and continue to prepare for a possible third dry year.”

The 2021 water year, which ended September 30, was the state’s driest in a century.

Snow surveys are conducted at least four times each winter and spring, and their results play a critical role in managing the state’s water supply for the remainder of the year. Traditionally, the melting snowpack has provided California with a third of its water, and significant infrastructure is designed to support the once-reliable snowmelt in the warmer months.

Experts say drought, heat and climate change are challenging these traditional assumptions.

“The main message for this last month of January is that it was a complete flip-flop from what we saw in December,” said Scott Rowe, meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Sacramento. “Rain levels have plummeted across much of the state.”

While the December survey came at the end of one of the wettest months in recent memory, February came after one of the driest. Parts of the Sierra Nevada that saw more than 300% of normal precipitation in December saw just 0% in January, according to data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s California Nevada River Forecast Center.

“We went from a wet October to a dry November to a wet December to a dry January — a seesaw effect,” Rowe said.

Although such swings can be common in California, experts say the extremes are becoming more pronounced.

“Year after year, and even month after month, our climate experiences these erratic wet-to-dry shifts that make water resource planning and water management so challenging in a changing climate,” De Guzman said.

Weeks ago, state officials said December’s storms could allow for a “modest increase” in water supply allocations. Officials have not yet indicated whether that allocation will change because of January’s dry weather, although De Guzman noted on Tuesday that most reservoirs were still underperforming.

“We need to see a return of those winter storms in February and March to really stay on top of things and stay roughly normal,” he said.

Unfortunately, the coming weeks are looking dry. NOAA’s month-long outlook calls for below-normal precipitation in all parts of the state, while the US Drought Monitor map, which measures soil moisture, shows almost the entire state under “severe” or “moderate” drought conditions.

“As the West enters the second half of its wintry rainy season, a return to stormy weather will be required to sustain the drought improvement seen in October and December,” drought monitor officials wrote in their latest analysis.

UCLA climate scientist Daniel Swain noted on Twitter that the forecast for early February was “the driest overall ensemble”. [precipitation] Forecast I’ve ever seen during the peak of California’s rainy season.”

“Extremely dry conditions — with zero rain or snow in most places — are likely to continue throughout California and even much of the West through mid-February,” he said.

Meanwhile, the East Coast was hit by a snowstorm last weekend, and more than 20 states are now bracing for a massive winter storm that could stretch more than 2,000 miles. None of that will make it to California, said Rowe, the meteorologist.

“Unfortunately, the prognosis remains to repeat,” he said. “We can expect largely dry weather at least in the middle of the month.”

The “finish line” for measuring Sierra snowpack is usually April 1, when snowpack tends to be at its deepest, and the next survey is taken on March 1, De Guzman said.

But at Phillips Station — where officials recorded 20 inches of snow water equivalent in December, or 202% of the average for the site — Tuesday’s equivalent measured just 19 inches, or 109% of the average, a potential indication of what the rest of the country’s season may be have stock.

“This drought,” he said, “is far from over.” California’s snowpack is dwindling after a dry January

Tom Vazquez

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