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California Snowpack: Gov. Newsom Unveils Water Plan for a Climate-Changed Future

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Gov. Gavin Newsom speaks to news media on April 2, 2024, after the fourth media snow survey of the 2024 season at Phillips Station in the Sierra Nevada. The survey is held approximately 90 miles east of Sacramento off Highway 50 in El Dorado County.  (Andrew Nixon / California Department of Water Resources)

Tromping through multiple feet of snow near Lake Tahoe on Tuesday, California Gov. Gavin Newsom unveiled the state’s updated water plan for a climate-changed future as “snow droughts,” deluges and dry times intensify.

“You can take a deep breath this year, but don’t quadruple the amount of time in your shower; then consider that this time next year, we may be at a different place,” he said.

Newsom said California’s new climate reality demands a new sophisticated approach to modernize aging water infrastructure and limited water supplies.

The California Water Plan 2023 update is a strategic blueprint that guides water managers to ensure that water systems — from rural communities plagued by contaminated water to metropolitan areas capturing stormwater for drier times to the state’s interconnected water system — are prepared for weather whiplash, deepened by human-caused climate change.

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“I’ll remind all of you the water system in California was designed for a world that no longer exists,” Newsom said.

This year isn’t a prime example of the future — the snowpack is glistening white at 110% of the average for April, which means the state is heading into warmer months with plentiful water supplies — but snow-packed years aren’t a guarantee. And the snowpack accounts for 30% of the state’s water needs.

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“Those are pretty healthy numbers,” UCLA climate scientist Daniel Swain said. “From a short-term water supply problem, we’re not going to have major issues in California.”

With climate change “an urgent threat,” the state’s sprawling plan, updated every five years, addresses three key areas: strengthening watersheds, addressing climate change and closing a gap in “long-standing inequities” in water management. Planning with equity in mind is important because the report notes that water supplies will likely decrease by 10% by 2040, “challenging many vulnerable Californians in accessing their human right to water.”

Newsom also lauded an endeavor to potentially build a new reservoir and a controversial plan to build a 45-mile water tunnel beneath the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta and said the project is “critical if we’re going to address the issue of climate change.”

The announcement comes after the state’s new conservation rules received strong criticism. If the regulations go into effect, they will likely ease standards, giving water managers more time to comply, and environmentalists argue that this will lead to smaller water savings statewide.

Advocacy groups, like the Community Water Center, applaud the state for focusing on equity and calling out a lack of inclusion in the world of water management. But Abraham Mendoza, the group’s policy manages, said the plan does “not speak to solving the problem in a timely manner.” He said funding and solutions are needed for “the infrastructure to implement community-driven solutions, programs for affordability.”

‘Average is awesome’

In January, the snowpack measured just 25% of the average, and scientists warned of a potential “snow drought.” Water managers worried storms wouldn’t build it up and that the long-term trend of a shrinking snowpack would hold true this winter. But California’s luck changed in February as storm after storm rolled over the state. Then another in early March added as much as 12 feet of snow to the height of the Sierra.

“The beginning of the year was more indicative of what we expect to see in the future,” said Andrew Schwartz, lead scientist at the UC Berkeley Central Sierra Snow Lab. “In terms of overall climate change this year, this is one of those years where we kind of wound up fortunate.”

Still, state leaders are rejoicing over this year’s snowpack.

“Average is awesome,” said Karla Nemeth, director of California’s Department of Water Resources. “We’ve had some pretty big swings in the last couple of years, but average may be coming less and less common feature of snowpack.”

There’s even more good news in the near term: the above-average snowpack could deepen this week — and potentially through the rest of April — as a cold storm could drop as much as a foot of fresh powder on the range starting Wednesday.

“Over the next week, another couple of storms may come through,” Schwartz said.

Schwartz said the slightly above-average snowpack means a lighter flood risk as it melts, ultimately replenishing reservoirs “to help us prepare for a year when we might have a shortfall.”

“This is another year that’s helping us along; We’re looking like we’re in good shape this year,” he said of state reservoirs already at 116% of average levels.

But he said two years of above-average snow does not mean California should pause preparing for future droughts — which is why the state’s new water plan is essential. Over the past decades, California has had two multiyear droughts followed by record snowpacks and damaging floods.

The heightened snowpack is also good news for staving off the threat of early-season wildfires.

“There’s going to be an opportunity for a lot of prescribed burning,” UCLA’s Swain said.

While all the snow most likely means decreased wildfire risk at high elevations, Swain expects “a significant increase in fire activity” in late summer because lower elevations are now bright green with grasses, shrubs and chaparral. All the growth could mean fires in areas of the state that don’t often burn.

All the water will allow “invasive grasses to fill in the gaps between sagebrush and Joshua trees,” which “may increase the likelihood of fires in the deserts earlier in the season,” Swain said.

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