Snow Hope Covered by Drought Worry

The return of La Nina melts the hope of an improved snowpack.

Published on: Jan 5, 2009

The Department of Water Resources first snow survey of the 2008/2009 winter season indicates snow water content is 76% of normal for the date, statewide. This time last year, snow water content was 60% of normal statewide.

"While today's conditions are an improvement over last year's initial snow survey figures, the strain on California's water supply persists," says DWR Director Lester Snow. "Recent regulatory actions that further limit pumping through the Delta and deficits from the previous two dry years will require a very wet year to relieve the drought. We must take immediate steps to protect the Delta ecosystem, conserve more water and develop additional groundwater and surface storage facilities to meet our future needs."

The return of La Nina increases the likelihood of a third dry year with state water officials saying it could signal a repeat of last year, when a near normal snow season ended in drought.

While this year's water content is higher than last, winter storms arrived late. It is too early to tell whether improved figures will translate into a better water year than the state experienced last year, when winter storms ended early leading to California's driest spring on record.

Electronic sensor readings show northern Sierra snow water equivalents at 54% of normal for this date, central Sierra at 76%, and southern Sierra at 99%. The sensor readings are posted at cdec.water.ca.gov/cgi-progs/snow/DLYSWEQ.  

Storage in California's major reservoirs is low. Lake Oroville, the principal storage reservoir for the State Water Project (SWP), is at 28% of capacity, and 44% of average storage for this time of year.

Continuing dry conditions and court-ordered restrictions on Delta water exports are limiting water deliveries to farms and urban areas. DWR's early estimate is that it will only be able to deliver 15% of requested State Water Project water this year to the Bay Area, San Joaquin Valley, Central Coast and Southern California. Increased precipitation this winter could increase this figure.

In December 2008, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service released a Delta smelt Biological Opinion which could reduce Delta exports by 20-50%. In December 2007, Judge Oliver Wanger restricted pumping to protect the Delta smelt, resulting in a 25% reduction in water deliveries. In a November 2008 decision, the California Fish and Game Commission implemented take restrictions for the longfin smelt which also could reduce water delivery pumping. And a Biological Opinion from the National Marine Fisheries Service to protect salmon and steelhead is expected in March. These regulatory actions have and will continue to significantly decrease deliveries to homes, farms, cities and industry by both the State Water Project and the federal Central Valley Project.

Results of today's manual survey by DWR off Highway 50 near Echo Summit are as follow:

Location Elevation Snow Depth Water Content % of Long Term Average
Phillips Station 6,800 feet 41 inches 10 inches 83%