State water officials are optimistic despite 'gloomy' California snowpack survey

Snowpack in the resort town of Phillips, Calif., measured just 53% of the seasonal average on Tuesday, but water officials said there was still reason for optimism as the state enters its sixth year of drought. 

Standing in 3 feet of snow at the El Dorado County measuring station, Frank Gehrke of the California Department of Water Resources counseled hope as he announced the survey results.

“While that seems perhaps a little gloomy, keep in mind that we had pretty much bare ground here about a week ago,” Gehrke said.

The statewide snowpack measurement is somewhat better — 70% of the seasonal average — but still nowhere near last year’s measurement of 105% of average for this time of year.

The situation is likely to improve very soon, however, as even more snow is on the way, according to the National Weather Service.

A pair of Northern California storms — the first on Wednesday followed by another on Saturday — are expected to drench mountains and valleys through early next week.

Up to 4 feet of snow may drop at the highest elevations with the second storm, which is part of an atmospheric river, said National Weather Service meteorologist Zach Tolby. The storms could contribute to the snowpack at the highest elevations, he said.

Melted snow provides about a third of the state’s water, and thanks to a snowy winter last year, a lot of the groundwater in Northern California has been replenished, relieving drought conditions there.

Another year like last year would make even greater gains in alleviating California’s drought, Gerhke said.

A series of storms that washed across Northern California over the weekend dropped more than 20 inches of snow on the Sierra Nevada mountain range, which provides water for key state water projects.

“I think it’s a very encouraging start to winter,” he said.

That’s because the precipitation hitting the state this year is mostly coming in the best way to help the drought — slow and steady.

Northern California had its wettest October in 30 years, followed by a dip in November, but then a resurgence of rain and snow in December.   

According to the Department of Water Resources, the current water content in the northern Sierra Nevada is 68% of average for this time of year; the central Sierra clocked in at 65% and the southern Sierra at 73%.

Southern California may also see a turn in the tide when it comes to the drought.

After missing out on the gains from last year’s El Niño, downtown Los Angeles has seen recent rainfall totals not experienced in years.

The average rainfall downtown between Oct. 1 and Jan. 2 is 4.24 inches, said National Weather Service meteorologist Scott Sukup. This year it has already rained 5.95 inches. Last year, it was a paltry 1.03, he said.

A set of storms heading to California over the weekend, dubbed the “pineapple express” could hit Central or Southern California by Saturday or Sunday, he said.

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