It’s become an annual tradition on the beginning of every year for the California Department of Water Resources to venture out to the Sierra Nevada mountains to record the current snowpack. In the first measurement of 2020 on January 2nd, Tahoe’s Phillip Station recorded 33.5 inches of snowdepth, approximately 97 percent of yearly average. Statewide, the snowpack sits at 90 percent of yearly average.
It was a decent start to the year, but DWR officials remained cautious that the stability of the water year is still in flux.
“While the series of cold weather storms in November and December has provided a good start to the 2020 snowpack, precipitation in Northern California is still below average for this time of year,” said DWR Director Karla Nemeth. “We must remember how variable California’s climate is and what a profound impact climate change has on our snowpack.”
Although the tradition of manually measuring the snow is a celebrated event, it’s much less effective than the 130 stations scattered throughout the state that provide electronic readings on the snowpack throughout the year. DWR conducts five media-oriented snow surveys at Phillips Station each winter in January, February, March, April and, if necessary, May. On average, the snowpack supplies about 30 percent of California’s water needs as it melts in the spring and early summer.
“It’s still too early to predict what the remainder of the year will bring in terms of snowpack,” said Sean de Guzman, chief of DWR’s Snow Surveys and Water Supply Forecasting Section. “Climate change is altering the balance of rain and snow in California. That is why it is important to maintain our measurements of the snowpack to document the change in addition to having critical information to forecast spring runoff.”
California traditionally receives about 75 percent of its annual precipitation during December, January and February, with the bulk of this precipitation coming from atmospheric rivers. Similar to last year, California experienced a dry start to this water year followed by cold, wet December storms that brought the state up to 74 percent of average annual precipitation for this time of year.