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.”



  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 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.

  3. 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.

  4. 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)?

  5. @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.

  6. 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)

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

  8. 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.

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