Good News for 2024 Water Supplies: Snowpack Is Again Above the Norm

Gov. Gavin Newsom trekked into the mountains with state officials Tuesday as they conducted their last snowpack measurement of the season. The expected result: an above-average year, the second in a row.

After a slow start last fall, California’s wet season ended April 1 with the Sierra Nevada snowpack measuring 110% of its historical average. Last year’s snowpack tied with 1952 for the highest on record — a whopping 221% of average, measuring 126.5 inches.

The snow is essential for funneling large volumes of water south to 27 million people, mostly in Southern California, and 750,000 acres of farmland via the State Water Project. So far, agencies served by the massive system of dams and aqueducts have been allocated just 30% of the water requested, although that amount is often adjusted later.

Reservoirs statewide are in good shape for the dry months to come: Eleven of the state’s 12 major reservoirs are storing more than 100% of average.

It’s been a soggy season in the rest of California, too. Statewide rainfall is 104% above average. Downtown Los Angeles had had the “second-wettest back-to-back years since records began in 1877,” according to the National Weather Service. More than 52 inches of rain fell there during the past two wet seasons.

But that doesn’t mean California no longer faces chronic water shortages. Groundwater in the San Joaquin Valley has been drained more quickly than it can be recharged, so thousands of wells are still dry. The Colorado River still doesn’t have enough water to meet the demands of farms and cities in seven states. And droughts are becoming more common and more extreme as the climate crisis intensifies.

The State Water Project manages 24 California reservoirs. Reservoir levels are currently 18 million acre-feet of water. The system can store 24 million acre-feet of water, putting the state’s reservoirs at 75% of capacity.

Much of California’s water falls as snow in the Sierra Nevada and other northern mountain ranges. To satisfy human demands, we have transformed the state’s natural water systems to transport water hundreds of miles from its source.

The federal government built the Central Valley Project, which primarily conveys water from Northern California to irrigate crops in the San Joaquin Valley.

The state built the California Aqueduct, which snakes down the Central Valley for more than 400 miles. Much of the water in the state aqueduct moves downhill by gravity.

But it's not all downhill from there. To get over the Tehachapi Mountains near Los Angeles, the water is pumped nearly 2,000 feet high by the most powerful water lifting system in the world.

In addition, Los Angeles has built its own system, the Los Angeles Aqueduct, to carry water from the Owens Valley into the city.

But none of that is enough. The Colorado River, which winds through four other states before reaching the southeastern tip of California, is another major source. The state is entitled to 4.4 million acre-feet of water a year under a multi-state contract. But it's difficult to know how much will be available in the coming decades. The US Geological Survey estimates that the river's flow, once mighty enough to carve the Grand Canyon, will decline by nearly a third over the next 30 years because of climate change.

The Metropolitan Water District, which provides drinking water to more than 19 million people in Southern California, operates the Colorado River Aqueduct to carry water from the eastern edge of the state across the desert and into the Los Angeles basin. This aqueduct supplies about a quarter of the district’s water.

In 2023, California had a statewide average of 27.14 inches of precipitation, making it the #25 Wettest year since 1895.

When rain falls as snow, it freezes and creates a water reserve for warmer times of the year. This water, when it melts, washes back into waterways and into the ground, supporting our water needs when rain isn't in the forecast.

The California Department of Water Resources uses a metric called "snow water content" to measure how much water is frozen.

Historically most snow has fallen by April 1, so scientists compare the snow water content from that day to the same day in previous years to assess how likely the state will be to satisfy water requests.

California's statewide snowpack on April 3, 2023 tied with 1952 for the highest on record for that date. Meanwhile, snow water content in the central and southern Sierras broke records, while in the northern Sierras snow

The State Water Project doles out water based on a system dating back to the Gold Rush.

Those who take the water deliveries are called contractors — mainly agencies managing water for residential, industrial, recreational and agricultural use.

Several times a year, the project announces what percentage of a contractor's request will be allocated for the water year. In times of extreme drought, allocations tend to drop moving into the summer if snowpack levels disappoint expectations.

One Comment

  1. So, how will the state blame climate change for this massive bounty of H2O?

    They already tried to con people into thinking deadly wildfires are started by climate change, which 90%+ of the time it isn’t true and the largest, most deadly fires we’ve seen in CA and HI are due to the utility company, not “climate change.” Will news outlets in CA continue to parrot the nonsense of failed leaders like Newsom? Or are they finally tired of being lied to, and being told the sky is purple?

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