State water officials stood in a field 90 miles northeast of Sonora with very little snow Wednesday, and their first manual survey of snowpack this winter found snow water equivalent of 0.4 inches, just 3 percent of average for early January.
Coming on the heels of a dry December and a dry water year since Oct. 1, it’s no surprise that electronic readings this week from more than a hundred sensors up and down the Sierra Nevada show snowpack in the high mountains is far below average.
According to the state Department of Water Resources, snow water equivalent of Northern Sierra snowpack is 2.3 inches, 21 percent of the multi-decade average for Jan. 3.
Central Sierra snowpack is holding 3.3 inches of snow water equivalent, 29 percent of average, and the Southern Sierra has 1.8 inches, 20 percent of average.
Statewide, the snowpack snow water equivalent is 2.6 inches, or 24 percent of the Jan. 3 average. Scientists say snow water equivalent is a measurement intended to show the depth of water that would result if all the snowpack melted all at once.
In spite of the lack of deep, plentiful snow, Grant Davis, Department of Water Resources director, said it’s too soon to speculate how much vital snowpack the Golden State will get this winter.
“As we’re only a third of the way through California’s three wettest months, it’s far too early to draw any conclusions about what kind of season we’ll have this year,” Davis told reporters at Phillips Station off Highway 50, near Echo Summit in El Dorado County.
California’s unpredictable, variable weather patterns mean Golden State residents “can go straight from a dry year to a wet year and back again to dry,” Davis said.
Davis emphasized the weather and its many moods are why Californians need to adopt water conservation as a way of life, while water managers need to invest in more above-ground and below-ground storage and improve facilities to ensure and protect clean water supplies against disruptions — like drought.
Frank Gehrke, chief of the state’s Cooperative Snow Surveys Program, conducted a manual snow survey Wednesday at Phillips Station and he called it “a disappointing start of the year.”
Gehrke also emphasized it’s too soon to draw conclusions about what the rest of this winter will bring. The bulk of the atmospheric river storms that soaked, saturated and pounded the Mother Lode and the rest of the Central Sierra last winter came in January and February.
There is still plenty of time left in the traditional wet season to reverse the dry trend, Gehrke said.
The only sure thing Wednesday is that near-record precipitation last winter and spring now mean the Golden State has above-average storage in 154 reservoirs tracked by the Department of Water Resources.
That includes major reservoirs in Calaveras and Tuolumne counties like New Melones, Don Pedro and Hetch Hetchy, which are all holding more than 80 percent of capacity this week.
A year ago, the Tuolumne Utilities District that supplies water to more than 44,000 residents told state Water Control Board people to allow emergency regulations to expire because TUD’s watershed, the South Fork Stanislaus, had already received substantial snowpack and precipitation.
Each year, state water people say, winter snowpack supplies about 30 percent of California’s water needs as it melts each spring and early summer. The more snow the Central Sierra gets, the greater its snow water content will be. Snowpack each winter helps determine if TUD and other Mother Lode water agencies will have enough water banked in reservoirs to get through summer and fall, and whether there will be any left over for the next dry spells and for the next return of extended drought.