As April Begins, California's Snowpack is About Half of Normal

A snow-covered Sierra Nevada mountain peak to the northwest of Phillips Station snow course near Lake Tahoe. (Dale Kolke/California Department of Water Resources)

California water officials announced Wednesday that snowpack across the Sierra Nevada is measuring 53 percent of the historical average for the start of April.

The state's Department of Water Resources (DWR) conducted the fourth monthly snow survey of the season today at Phillips Station snow course south of Lake Tahoe.

DWR spokesman Chris Orrock says the region experienced a handful of big snow storms in March, but they weren't enough to make up for a dry January and one of the driest Februaries on record.

"This year we're probably going to have one of the 10 worst snowpacks in California history," says Orrock.

Scientists in California closely monitor Sierra snowpack leading up to April 1st, around the time when the spring runoff typically begins. The water that melts off the snowpack helps to replenish California’s reservoirs in dry months.

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Water from melting Sierra snowpack accounts for about 30 percent of California’s annual water supply.

Orrock says the majority of that snowpack accumulates from December through the end of March.

"April 1st is kind of our benchmark. Typically that’s when we see the deepest snowpack with the most water," says Orrock.

Over the past decade, Sierra snowpack totals have varied significantly from year to year.

“In the past 10 years, we’ve seen three of our smallest snowpacks on record, but we’ve also seen three of our largest snowpacks on record," said Sean de Guzman, DWR's chief of Snow Survey and Water Supply Forecast Section, in a statement.

While 2020 will go down as a dry year, Orrock says runoff from last year's snowpack, which was was well above average, has left the state's major reservoirs near — or above — average for this time of year.

Water officials say climate change has played a role in the variability observed in California's snowpack.

“While today’s survey results show our snowpack is better off than it was just last month, they still underscore the need for widespread, wise use of our water supplies,” said DWR Director Karla Nemeth in a statement. “California’s climate continues to show extreme unpredictability, and February’s record dryness is a clear example of the extremes associated with climate change."