Sierra Snowpack Falls to Lowest Level in 7 Years, as Worsening Drought Looms

Seven years ago today, during the height of the last drought, California Gov. Jerry Brown stood on the barren slopes of the Sierra Nevada, watching as engineers measured the worst snowpack in state history.

Today’s snow measurements aren’t quite so bleak, but they remain devastatingly low: The snowpack — which provides a third of California’s water supply — is 38% of average statewide. And at the same bone-dry spot where Brown stood in 2015, at Phillips Station south of Lake Tahoe, state engineers today found a shrinking patch of snow that contained only 4% of the location’s average water content.

After the Sierra Nevada’s driest January, February and March for more than a century, the scene painted a picture of a deepening drought.

“Today is actually very evocative of 2015,” Karla Nemeth, director of the California Department of Water Resources said against a backdrop of brown grass at Phillips Station.

“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.

Worse than last year, worse even than last month, this year’s snowpack is the worst it’s been in seven years and the sixth lowest April measurement in state history. It’s not as bad as the last drought, however: The snowpack contains about eight times more water than in 2015.

The amount of snow in April is considered critical because it indicates how much water will be available through the summer. The snow, historically at its deepest in April, melts and flows into rivers, streams and reservoirs that serve much of the state.

Sean de Guzman, manager of the state’s snow surveys and water supply forecasting section, held his hand at roughly shoulder height on a survey instrument. “On an average year, our feet should be right here where my hand is,” he said.

As California’s water officials discovered last year, climate change is upending their forecasts for how much melting snow the thirsty state can truly expect to refill its dwindling stores.

It’s a dismal end to a water year that began with great promise, with early storms in October and December. By Jan. 1, the plush snowpack was 160% of average for that date statewide, and already a little over half the seasonal total.

“Our great snowpack — the water tower of the West and the world — was looking good. We had real high hopes,” Benjamin Hatchett, an assistant research professor with the Western Regional Climate Center and Desert Research Institute, said in a recent drought presentation.

Typically, the snowpack would continue to build until April.  But a record-dry January, February and March followed by unseasonably warm and dry conditions in March sapped the frozen stores, which by the end of the month were already melting at levels that would be expected in April or May.

Now, “we would consider this to be deep into snow drought,” Hatchett said.

Reservoir storage statewide is about 70% of average — around half of total capacity, de Guzman said today.

Though state officials reported that early snowmelt has started to refill foothill reservoirs, the water level in massive Lake Shasta, critical to federal supplies for farms, people and endangered salmon, sits at less than half the average for this date. Lake Oroville is only slightly better, at 67% of its historic average.

From Andrew Schwartz’s vantage point north of Lake Tahoe at the University of California, Berkeley’s Central Sierra Snow Lab, it still looks wintry, with about three feet of snow, “plus or minus six inches,” he said.

It’s a far cry from the grassy field further south in the Sierra Nevada, where Brown stood for the survey seven years ago and where state officials found just traces of snow today.

“It’s been a false sense of security when you come up here” to the snow lab, Schwartz said “Statewide as a whole, it’s not looking great.”

There could be a number of consequences to the early snowmelt, Schwartz said. It could result in more water loss as early snowmelt evaporates in reservoirs, disrupting the balance of mountain ecosystems and speeding the start of fire season.

“Without the snow, once things dry out, it’s just going to be catastrophic again,” Schwartz said.

Early snowmelt can also complicate reservoir operations if managers need to release water to preserve flood control space, said Nathan Patrick, a hydrologist with the federal California Nevada River Forecast Center.

California’s water supply will be determined by how much snowmelt continues to flow into major reservoirs versus how much will seep into the soil or disappear into the air. Climate change is already transforming this pattern as the weather swings between extremes, and warmer temperatures suck moisture from the soil and melt snow earlier in the year.

“The next few weeks are really that critical period to actually watch how much of that runoff will actually make it down into those lakes,” de Guzman said.

California’s Department of Water Resources is working to overhaul its runoff forecast calculations, an effort that has grown increasingly urgent. Last year, the state’s projections for runoff from the Sierra Nevada overshot reality by so much that water regulators were left scrambling to protect drinking water supplies and preserve enough water in storage.

Assemblymember Adam Gray, a Democrat from Merced, has called for a state audit of the calculations. “Has the state learned anything from this disaster?” he asked in a CalMatters op-ed.

This year, de Guzman and Patrick expect more of the snow to reach reservoirs.

The soils, for one thing, are wetter — the result of powerful October storms that soaked the state. That means more of the snowmelt may flow into rivers and streams. Generally, Patrick said, “We expect it to be better this year.”

Still, increased runoff can’t make up for a paltry snowpack — particularly in the Northern Sierra.  The snowpack there is the lowest in the state, just 28% the seasonal average, compared to 42% and 43% in the Central and Southern Sierra.

Patrick sees a trend emerging in the runoff and streamflow measurements over the past three years. “One after another have been below normal,” he said.

“You can deal with one or two bad years, but when you start to get these compounding, three bad years … it’s hard to recover.”

 

17 Comments

  1. This is no excuse for ClimaCult irrationality. Work on increasing water supply.

    Also, don’t be surprised later if new, drier records are set from climate change.

  2. THe only reliable way to increase water supply is Water Desalination from the ocean, but it will take 10 15 years to build enough of them, and the energy cost is going to be high. The other way is to overhaul the water grid so that wahsing machines, toilets, and other non potable water systems use recycled water in every location. Another 10-15 years. We should have started this in the 1970s. But all parties were not doing their jobs. BOTH the Dems and the Reps.

  3. Work90,

    This is a failure on both parties because in 1970 we knew that our water supply was going to be less than the need. And both parties messed up, they should have buolt water desalination systems starting in 1970.

    Dams will not solve the problem if the current trend continues. Simply put we use more than we get.

    All dams are reporting levels so low that many that generate electricity can’t anymore.

    Here is a report for your consideration (http://cdec.water.ca.gov/resapp/RescondMain)

    Most look only half full, and this is BEFORE summer. If we do not get much more rain, these dams will in effect be more than 75% dry by summer.

  4. The best way is nuclear, followed by hydro, to get clean, even emission-free, electrical power. That’s something else whose supply must increase, particularly with so many computers, electronic goodies, and nowadays “data works” increasing in appearance or number. That doesn’t even count the vast need for new high-power public EV charging in metro areas, not just on the Interstates on select routes, for example. As a small example, high-speed trains, if they ever appear and can run at high speed someday in California, are energy hogs. (The much greater efficiency of electrical propulsion is exploited enable speeds beyond what Diesels can realistically hope to sustain. Government in California and so many residents are too ignorant and intellectually incapable of seeing real trade-offs, as with LEDs and providing much more, better illumination, or accepting them if they’re ignorant or politically opposed, as with improved combustion in conventional motor vehicle engines — many select larger engines or vehicles when presented with the trade-off that is created.

    The North Coast rivers and more on the Sacramento can be dammed, if the situation becomes bad enough, with or without ending Wild and Scenic status.

    Nuclear is the choice for electrical power to provide desalinization, which is highly energy-intensive and must be located at the sea shore, but too many people in California are ignorant, phobic, and incompetent about nuclear energy.

    Dems have been much worse than Republicans. as well as owning the state and most local governments for ages. Maybe the Dems will change their behavior if enough if their constituents face severe enough hardship their problem thinking and behavior are overcome.

  5. Local,

    Wait you want to use NUCLEAR to provide power, do you know how much water is used to cool a nuclear reactor, and once used is unusable forever? You cannot use sea water because the salt will ruin the reactor.

    The data states that between 1,514 and 2,725 litres of water is use per 1 megawatt hour Since most produce 5 megawatt hours, that means the nuclear plant will consume conservatively 66,313,200 liters a year or 17,518,094 gallons.

    California uses 259.5 TeraWatthours, you would likely have to build at least 10 reactors to provide the additional power

    This water will need to be SAFELY STORED for radioactive purposes every year, now since a liter is equal to .03 cubic feet it will require 2,341,8299 cubic feet to store one reactors waste. That is also 537 acre feet. WHERE ARE WE GOING TO STORE IT?

    This will be water never recycled. So it is permenantly lost and it poses a health danger if it spills.

  6. Steve,

    “You cannot use sea water because the salt will ruin the reactor. ”

    United States Navy submarine veteran here. Qualified in submarines.

    The whole reason we use a pressurized water reactor on submarines is to use the saltwater that surrounds us. The reactor heats it into steam and the steam drives a turbine that turns the screw (propeller).

    We make a ltle over 5000 gallons of potable water every watch day (18 hrs). This is shared by 100 enlisted members (females too now although not when I was in but I alway supported the idea) and 20 officers, so that’s 41 gallons per day per person for all potle water needs. It does mean we have to do submarine showers: water on for 2 seconds, water off, put soap on body, water on for 2 seconds, shower over.

    But yes nuclear power is definitely capable of generating large amounts of potable water from seawater and lots of power without pollution.

    Sadly a lot of people are ignorant of nuclear pr and have an irrational fear of it, ironic for this highly educated state. But I used tobspend months at a time living less than 600 feet from an active nuclear reactor and I don’t glow in the dark. My longest period underwater on nuclear power was 87 days in a row.

    It’s a great source of power and we really need to keep that last reactor running and build more in the state.

  7. Amazing… it took less than an hour for LocalYokel to prove his assertion100% Correct.
    “too many people in California are Ignorant, Phobic, and Incompetent about nuclear energy.”

    More proof from the prodigious panic pontificator that:

    “It’s better to remain silent and be thought a fool,
    than open ones mouth and remove all doubt” ­
    ­- Mark Twain

    About the only thing he may be correct on is converting liters to gallons, a master on his unit(s)?

  8. @Neutrino78X,
    You are partly correct, but these power plants work on closed loop systems, and salt water will not work well within the reactor or steam loop. The sea water is very useful and used in the cooling loop – an open loop system, and as you mentioned, for making pure distilled water for both potable and power plant makeup water.

  9. CA PAtriot,

    You finally pointed out something VERY correct a Nuclear Sub

    Current U.S. naval reactors are all pressurized water reactors,[4] which are identical to PWR commercial reactors producing electricity, except that:

    They have a high power density in a small volume and run either on low-enriched uranium (as do some French and Chinese submarines) or on highly enriched uranium (>20% U-235, current U.S. submarines use fuel enriched to at least 93%)

    They have long core lives, so that refueling is needed only after 10 or more years, and new cores are designed to last 25 years in carriers and 10–33 years in submarines,

    The design enables a compact pressure vessel while maintaining safety

    Long core life is enabled by high uranium enrichment and by incorporating a “burnable neutron poison”, which is progressively depleted as non-burnable poisons like fission products and actinides accumulate. The loss of burnable poison counterbalances the creation of non-burnable poisons and result in stable long term fuel efficiency.

    Long-term integrity of the compact reactor pressure vessel is maintained by providing an internal neutron shield. (This is in contrast to early Soviet civil PWR designs where embrittlement occurs due to neutron bombardment of a very narrow pressure vessel.)

    Reactor sizes range up to ~500 MWt (about 165 MWe) in the larger submarines and surface ships. The French Rubis-class submarines have a 48 MW reactor that needs no refueling for 30 years.

    The nuclear navies of the United States, the United Kingdom, and the Russian Federation rely on steam turbine propulsion. Those of the French and Chinese use the turbine to generate electricity for propulsion. Most Russian submarines as well as all U.S. surface ships since Enterprise are powered by two or more reactors. U.S., British, French, Chinese and Indian submarines are powered by one.

    Decommissioning nuclear-powered submarines has become a major task for American and Russian navies.[6] After defuelling, U.S. practice is to cut the reactor section from the vessel for disposal in shallow land burial as low-level waste (see the Ship-Submarine recycling program).

    A submarine producing only 5000 galons of water is nothing compared to the scale that is required here where the state uses 85 gallons per person time 40,000,000 04 2.5 Billion gallons of water, that is equal to 10,434 Acre Feet, and that is only the usage of people. Simply put we will need a nuclear reactor that is 500,000 times bigger to produce drinkable water the way it is done in a nuclear sub.

    The fact was he was making a comparison that was completely WRONG.

  10. CA PAtriot,

    Current U.S. naval reactors are all pressurized water reactors,[4] which are identical to PWR commercial reactors producing electricity, except that:

    They have a high power density in a small volume and run either on low-enriched uranium (as do some French and Chinese submarines) or on highly enriched uranium (>20% U-235, current U.S. submarines use fuel enriched to at least 93%)

    The design enables a compact pressure vessel while maintaining safety

    Long core life is enabled by high uranium enrichment and by incorporating a “burnable neutron poison”, which is progressively depleted as non-burnable poisons like fission products and actinides accumulate. The loss of burnable poison counterbalances the creation of non-burnable poisons and result in stable long term fuel efficiency.

    Reactor sizes range up to ~500 MWt (about 165 MWe) in the larger submarines and surface ships.

    A submarine producing only 5000 galons of water is nothing compared to the scale that is required here where the state uses 85 gallons per person times 40,000,000 or 2.5 Billion gallons of water, that is equal to 10,434 Acre Feet, and that is only the usage of people. Simply put we will need a nuclear reactor that is 500,000 times bigger to produce drinkable water the way it is done in a nuclear sub.

    The fact was he was making a comparison that was completely WRONG.

  11. Now, it took only 2 hours to Cement the assertion that:
    “too many people in California are Ignorant, Phobic, and Incompetent about nuclear energy.”

    Posting someone’s wikipedia entry 2x does not prove a Lack Of Ignorance or Incompetence
    – more-so it adds to its proof.

    The gall to call someone who knows about, and has experience in the topic as “completely WRONG” is a sign of a Very Fragile Ego, the fact that Neutrino78X was kind enough to even reply to your totally moronic and wrong post on the topic should have given you some restraint.
    …….
    “Some people have such a fragile ego, such brittle self-esteem, such a weak “psychological constitution,” that admitting they made a mistake or that they were wrong is fundamentally too threatening for their egos to tolerate.
    Accepting they were wrong, absorbing that reality, would be so psychologically shattering, their defense mechanisms do something remarkable to avoid doing so – they literally distort their perception of reality to make it (reality) less threatening.
    Their defense mechanisms protect their fragile ego by changing the very facts in their mind, so they are no longer wrong or culpable.”

    “The one mistake we should not make is to consider their persistent and rigid refusal to admit they’re wrong as a sign of strength or conviction because it is the absolute opposite — psychological weakness and fragility.”

    “These people are not choosing to stand their ground;
    they’re compelled to do so in order to protect their fragile egos.”
    (Guy Winch, Ph.D., licensed psychologist)

  12. CA Patriot,

    First to apologize on the double post. I thought it dumped the first one when it did not appear when I submitted it.

    Just understand this too, currently we only gety about 9% of the electricitiy from Nuclear in the state. And the state already has a nuclear waste problem You are aware of this event (https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2021/aug/24/san-onofre-nuclear-power-plant-radioactive-waste-unsafe) The facts are we do not have a reliable resource of where to put the waste products.

    Also one problem that has plagued CA and nuclear power of course is the tectonics of the state.

    It takes the theoretical absolute minimum amount of energy required by natural osmosis to desalinate average seawater is approximately 1 kilowatt-hour per cubic meter (kwh/m3) of water produced, or 3.8 kilowatt-hours per thousand gallons (kwh/kgal).

    I made an error in water need it was 85 gallons per person times 40,000,000 people time 365.25 days divided by 1000 comes to 1,241,850,000,000 gallons.

    To produce this amount of water daily you divide this by 1,000 and multiply by 3.8 kilowatt-hours. That results in 4,719,030,000 kilowatt-hours, or 4,719,030 megawatt-hours or 4.7 TWh.

    Now lets look at where we are regarding energy:

    Annual Energy Production Electric Power Generation: 199.5 TWh (5% total U.S.) but we use Annual Energy Consumption Electric Power: 259.5 TWh (7% total U.S.) . In other word we have to buy 60 TWh to balance out.

    We need at least 4TWh to produce water for only human consumption, where is this energy going to come from?

    Lets face it, CA is in serious trouble

  13. Vote out the dummies running the state for years then. Put someone in with different ideas.
    Just a thought.

  14. In fact, NEUTRINO78X, you may be aware of that MIT-Stanford study about keeping Diablo Canyon alive and well, and one option being to dedicate it fully to desalination. It can serve not only the Central Coast but provide water that’s pumped the opposite way of the State Water Project’s Coastal Branch or some other route to get to the Central Valley, and even supply developed So-Cal proper.

    Diablo Canyon could produce an estimate 4.552+ million acre-feet per year. The latest version of the Delta bypass to send Sacramento River water south, the Delta Conveyance Project, is rated in the report at 1.000 million acre-feet per year. Diablo Canyon dedicated wholly to desalination could provide 4.5 times as much.

    One of the very first, if not first, questions is, Why wasn’t this researched for San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station, when there was still time to save SONGS, for (developed and developing) So-Cal proper?

    Links to things like this often get comments killed. The the title is “An Assessment of the Diablo Nuclear Plant for Zero-Carbon Electricity, Desalination, and Hydrogen Production” and searching for (independent words) “diablo canyon mit stanford” will find the main page and more for you.

  15. Local,

    I read the report, and I say it LOOKS promising. But as you even used the word COULD PRODUCE water, the facts are there is no DESIGN to actually achieve it. This report is in many ways nothing but wishful thinking and until a design of such a system is produced and reviewed by the experts, it was only a proposal by many who had interests to keep the reactor online.

    Remember this report was only an opinion of the Authors as stated in the following statement:

    “Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this report are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the organizations they are affiliated with.”

    Unfortunately, as we all know many reports are writtent but are attributed to the institutions that the authors work in. But as I have pointed out on many occasions, that is NOT so.

    In fact this report was funded by those with a conflict of interrst as written in the report:

    “The authors acknowledge substantial contributions to this report from Jeffrey Koseff, William Alden and Martha Campbell Professor of Engineering at Stanford University, and Hunter Johnson, MS student, Civil and Environmental Engineering Department at Stanford University. The authors wish to acknowledge funding for this project from the MIT Center for Energy and Environmental Policy Research, the Abdul Latif Jameel Water and Food Systems Lab, the MIT Center for Advanced Nuclear Energy, the Rothrock Family Fund, the Pritzker Innovation Fund, The Rodel Foundation, Ross Koningstein, and Zachary Bogue & Matt Ocko.”

    Please provide us with an actual resource showing a apporved design to achieve what this report claims CAN be done?

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