Sierra Nevada Snowpack Hits All-Time Low, Shatters 1977 Record

Sierra snowpack (Justin Hall / Fickr / Creative Commons)
Justin Hall / Fickr / Creative Commons

The amount of water frozen in California’s Sierra Nevada mountains fell to just eight percent of the historic average this week, as the state struggles through a devastating fourth year of drought.

Dozens of snow surveyors from state and federal agencies took to the mountains this week to continue measuring the Sierra snowpack, a crucial source of water for drought-stricken central and southern California, according to the Fresno Bee.

Among the surveyors’ findings: very little, if any, snow has accumulated below 9,000 feet, and what little snow there is does not contain a whole lot of water.

“You can feel it when you push down the [measuring] pole. It moves easily,” Pacific Gas & Electric Co. hydrographer Matt Meadows told the Bee. “There’s not a lot of density. It’s melting. With a lot of warmth, this snowpack could come off pretty fast.”

Unusually warm weather in March has exacerbated the problem. Many areas of the state saw temperatures 15 to 20 degrees hotter than normal for this time of year. And with the state’s “rainy season” drawing to a close, there does not appear to be much more time for any big storms to help relieve Californians’ precarious water predicament.

“Let’s get right down to it: we’re done,” Jet Propulsion Laboratory climatologist Bill Patzert told the Los Angeles Times last week. “By April, usually, rainfall drops off dramatically. Nothing got better this year.”

March’s warm temperatures have virtually wiped the snow off the Sierra Nevada. State climatologist Michael Anderson told the Bee that the previous record low snowpack was 25 percent of average, recorded on April 1, 1977.

The Lodgepole snow measurement site, perched at 6,700 feet in Sequoia National Park, recorded just 63 inches of snow this year, according to the paper. The average for the site is 200 inches per year.

The numbers are not much better at the Upper Burnt Corral Meadow site, at 9,700 feet. While snow was at least visible at that elevation, Meadows related the bad news to the Bee: “It’s 8.2 inches. The average here is about 36 inches.”

California recently took several steps to mitigate the worst effects of the drought. The State Water Resources Control Board implemented new restrictions on urban water use, including lawn watering, and Gov. Jerry Brown last week unveiled a $1 billion drought relief package aimed at protecting drinking water, preserving wildlife, and maintaining the state’s water infrastructure.

For farmers in the drought-ravaged central part of the state, the response is too little, too late: a recent report from the University of California, Davis predicts California’s agriculture industry could lose as much as $1 billion over the next two years as millions of acres of farmland are forced to lay fallow.



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