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California’s snowpack sees big boost after recent storms

Kenneth James
California Department of Water Resources
CDWR forecasting chief Sean de Guzman and two other researchers work during the third media snow survey of the season in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, Calif., Friday, March 3, 2023.

Californians have seen several rounds of bitter winter storms pummel the state since late December. Though those storms have led to flooding, blizzards and landslides, they've also brought much-needed rain and snow to a state plagued by persistent drought.

On Friday, researchers at Phillips Station near Lake Tahoe recorded a snow depth over 9.5 feet deep. That’s about 170% more than the average snowpack level for this area in April, which is when it’s usually at its peak. Researchers also found statewide snowpack levels are almost 200% higher than average for this time period.

Sean de Guzman, manager of the snow surveys program for California’s Department of Water Resources, said this month’s snowpack levels rival those recorded in 1983, when California saw its highest snowpack levels ever.

“The southern Sierra is actually still outpacing 1983 to date, as of this morning,” de Guzman said. “And that's still with more snow on the way and another month of accumulating snow, before we see that peak snowpack.”

During last month’s snow survey — which was taken on Feb. 1, several weeks after the historic series of atmospheric rivers hit the state — researchers recorded snowpack levels that were double the average for early February.

Impacts from the heavy rain and snow vary throughout the state. Overall, de Guzman said the majority of snowfall from these storms hit the central and southern Sierra. In the northern Sierra and southern Cascades, he said snowpack levels are still above average but nowhere near the record-breaking levels in other areas.

“The southern Sierra actually has almost over two years worth of snow waiting to melt with more to come,” he said. “Right now, statewide, our snowpack is really close to that 1983 total, so one of the largest snowpacks we've seen on record.”

Typically, researchers wait until later in the wet season to assess the overall outlook of California’s water supply. But de Guzman said these storms have helped fight drought conditions in parts of the state by adding snowpack and replenishing reservoirs.

“The precipitation that California's received in recent days, combined with the nine atmospheric rivers during December and January, have really helped ease a lot of those drought impacts,” he said.

In a Feb. 13 executive order, Gov. Gavin Newsom directed state agencies to provide recommendations on the state’s drought response by the end of April. De Guzman said, by then, researchers should have a better idea of how these storms are impacting California’s drought situation.

The Department of Water Resources is tentatively set to conduct another snow survey at Phillips Station on April 3.

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