The water content of California’s Sierra Nevada snowpack — the source on roughly a third of the state’s annual potable water supply — measured 87 percent of average on Wednesday.
The figure is a vast improvement over last year’s dismal figures but an otherwise disappointing sign that the current Pacific El Niño will likely be unable to lift the state out of its four-year-long drought.
On Wednesday, California Department of Water Resources (DWR) surveyor Frank Gehrke trekked to the Phillips Station measuring outpost in El Dorado County, where he made what will likely be the final water content measurement before the Sierra snowpack peaks on April 1, according to the San Francisco Chronicle.
While the 87 percent measurement is a welcome improvement over last year’s 5 percent measurement taken around the same date, the snowpack level is down considerably from the 114 percent measurement recorded on February 1. An unusually dry, hot February, coupled with far fewer El Niño rainstorms than initially predicted for Southern California, contributed to the two-month snow melt.
“El Niño didn’t behave as a typical El Niño,” Gehrke told the Chronicle. “El Niños generally have been a good indicator of decent precip in the south. That has not been the case this year. Obviously, all the scientists are now picking up their computer models and revamping them, recognizing there is a lot more going on.”
Along with reservoir-held water and groundwater, Sierra snowpack runoff forms the backbone of California’s annual water supply. And the state’s reservoirs — at least those in the north — have slowly filled as late winter storms dumped billions of gallons of water into lakes and rivers.
California’s largest reservoir, Lake Shasta, rose to 88 percent of its total capacity and 109 percent of its historical average on March 30. Lake Oroville and Folsom Lake, also among the state’s largest reservoirs, similarly measured more than 100 percent of average for the date.
But reservoirs in Southern California — including the critical New Melones and San Luis reservoirs in the Central Valley — have not filled at the same rate as El Niño rainfall has remained concentrated up north. And groundwater overdraft — when farmers pull more water out from deep under ground than can be replenished naturally — is an ongoing problem, and has caused subsidence in sections of the Valley.
The underwhelming effect of the El Niño has caused some frustration among climatologists, who had hoped it could finally break California’s four-year-long water shortage. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) had previously called the El Niño the strongest event of its kind since at least 1950, and forecasters had expected a “Godzilla”-like deluge of wet wintry storms.
“I don’t think anybody guaranteed an apocalypse. But I was expecting a normal El Niño,” NASA climatologist Bill Patzert told the San Diego Union-Tribune. “I learned that ‘normal’ is a cycle on your washing machine.”
While California prepares to enter the hot summer months in better (if still disappointing) shape than last year, the State Water Resources Control Board will reportedly meet to consider whether to relax strict conservation rules ordered by Gov. Jerry Brown that mandated a 25 percent statewide reduction in water use. In January, Californians narrowly missed Brown’s target for the first time in the eight months since the conservation order was implemented.
For now, it appears there is no long-term drought relief in sight for the thirsty Golden State.
“We’re barely average,” DWR’s Gehrke told the Los Angeles Times. “It stops that downward slide. Now we’re clearly looking at next year, and there are no reliable indicators of what next year will bring.”
Follow Daniel Nussbaum on Twitter; @dznussbaum