Coast Life

Will winter storms end California’s drought? Officials conduct first snow survey

Storms in December pushed California snowpack to 160% of average, giving a boost to the state’s drought-depleted water supplies.

After two of California’s driest years on record, a spectacularly stormy December blanketed the Sierra Nevada with heavy snow, giving a major boost to the state’s water supplies.

The state’s mountain snowpack now stands at about 160% of average for this time of year, state officials said Thursday as they conducted the first snow survey of the season.

“We are off to a great start,” said Sean de Guzman, manager of snow surveys for the Department of Water Resources. “We need more of these storms to keep coming through.”

He said the state is “definitely not out of the woods” and the drought is still “far from over.”

De Guzman and other officials measured the water content of the snowpack at Phillips Station snow course, as they do five times during the winter and spring each year. The measurements of snowpack at a network of about 260 other sites across the Sierra Nevada are used to forecast how much snowmelt runoff will fill the state’s reservoirs in the coming months.

The storms that rolled in this month brought record snowfall in parts of the Sierra Nevada. More than 17 feet of snow — 212 inches in all — fell at Donner Pass in December, according to the UC Berkeley Central Sierra Now Lab.

California gets much of its rain and mountain snow between November and March. Though California naturally goes through dramatic swings between dry spells and deluges, higher temperatures brought on by climate change are making droughts more intense.

During the last water year, which ended Sept. 30, the Sierra Nevada snowpack peaked at 72% of average in April but then rapidly melted during the hottest spring on record.

Extreme heat last winter baked much of the West and left parched soils, which soaked up a portion of the runoff and left diminished flows in rivers, adding to California’s drought woes. It remains to be see whether this winter’s snowpack suffers a similar fate.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.