The series of atmospheric rivers that hit California in the months of December and January certainly improved the state’s snowpack, state water officials confirmed during their second snow survey of the year.
Results from the state’s latest manual snow survey, conducted on Wednesday, recorded 85.5 inches of snow at the Sierra Nevada’s Phillips Station, which is 193 percent of average for the area at this time of year.
Electronic snow sensors installed around California reveal that statewide, the snowpack is 205 percent of average for Feb. 1, which beats the state’s record snow levels in 1982.
The numbers come after the state endured one of its wettest three-week periods ever, which followed a severe three-year drought and a prolonged heat wave over the summer.
David Rizzardo, hydrology manager for the California Department of Water Resources, said January’s atmospheric rivers ensures that this year’s data is different than that of last’s, when the state was hit with the driest January, February and March on record after reaching snow depths of 150 percent above normal at the beginning of 2022.
“There’s a contrast to the year before, when we did have some good storms in December and a really good snowpack around January 1, but those were only two or three atmospheric rivers,” Rizzardo said. “So it is a major difference when you have that number of storms all coming in at different angles and orientations into the mountains and really distributing snow fairly well.”
Rizzardo added that the snow in higher elevations is very cold and not very dense – the perfect conditions for the snowpack to last until Spring. Snow in lower parts of the mountains is likely to melt quickly and rebuild, which is not alarming, he said.
State water officials air on the side of caution before celebrating, as California still has two months before it should reach its snowpack peak for the wet season. Called the “frozen reservoir,” the snowpack makes up about 30 percent of the state’s water supplies and significantly influences how water officials manage the state’s water supplies.
“California has always experienced some degree of swings between wet and dry, but the past few months have demonstrated how much more extreme those swings are becoming,” said DWR Director Karla Nemeth. “California is preparing for more intense and dangerous climate swings by bolstering both drought and flood preparation.”
California typically receives about half of its annual precipitation during December, January and February, said State Climatologist Michael Anderson. This season, the state received 80 percent of its snowfall in a matter of three weeks.
But Jeanine Jones, interstate resources manager at DWR, added that above-average rain and snow levels does not necessarily translate into water for Californians’ taps. She said that the state’s groundwater and reservoir systems are like “really big buckets” that need more than just one good wet season to be fully replenished, after years of depleted levels.
“Some areas will likely come out of drought conditions because of the very wet conditions that we’ve had, but it really depends on the circumstances of a water suppliers,” said Jones. “If they’re taking water from just only groundwater in an area that’s been very depleted over time, or if they’re taking water from a reservoir that’s really full.”