By Matthew Renda
(CN) — The first snow survey in California was ambiguous.
While it showed the mountains just southeast of Lake Tahoe contains a snowpack that is approximately average for this point of the winter, the automatic snow sensor network shows an impoverished snowpack throughout the Sierra, particularly in the southern reach of the range.
The California Department of Water Resources conducted the manual survey at Phillips Station and found a snow depth of 30.5 inches, which represents 93% of the average for this point in the season.
“It’s a little bit higher than we have been seeing through our statewide automatic sensor,” said Sean de Guzman, chief of the water department’s snow surveys and water supply.
Throughout the state, the picture is a little grimmer, with the snowpack at 53% of the average.
“Some snow came in the last couple of weeks, but the Southern Sierra has not really been hit,” de Guzman said.
The overall results also reflect an entrenched pattern of dry weather that began in October and stretched throughout the fall season in California.
“The fall of 2020 is one of the 15 driest on record,” said de Guzman. Storms in December have helped to alleviate some of those issues, but not all.
The unprecedented wildfire season in California will also hamper the snowpack, according to the water department. The Creek Fire in the southern part of the Sierra, burned vast swathes of forest, meaning snow accumulation, melting rates and soil absorption will all be negatively affected.
The same is true for forested areas in the northern stretch of the Sierra affected by the North Complex fire that burned in the Feather River watershed during the late summer-early autumn.
“It presents impacts to our snowpack,” de Guzman said.
The Sierra snowpack provides nearly a third of the water annually consumed by California homes, businesses and farms. The accumulation of a large snowpack is important because California receives little to no precipitation from May through September. Historically, the state, which has a Mediterranean climate, receives most of its water supply during the three wettest months — December, January and February.
There have been dry autumns followed by wet winters in California’s recorded past, so water managers are not overly concerned at this point.
“We still have several months left to bring us up to average, but we should prepare now for extended dry conditions,” said Karla Nemeth, director of the water department.
Although, recent long-term weather forecasts predict a shift in the Pacific Ocean storm tracks that could bring more precipitation to all of California in early January.
“Multiple rounds of rain and significant mountain snow are possible this holiday weekend into the middle of next week,” the National Weather Service said Wednesday.
Such forecasts have prompted water managers to wax cautiously optimistic that next month’s survey will yield more promising results.
It’s desperately needed.
All of California is abnormally dry, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor. About 95% of the state is experiencing some level of drought, while approximately three-quarters of the state is labeled severe drought.
At the start of the fall, only one-third of the state fell under severe drought, indicating how dire the impacts from the persistent dry weather continue to be.
The American West at large has been hurt by periods of dry weather. Most of the Four Corners region, encompassing large swaths of Utah, Colorado, New Mexico and Arizona, are labeled as exceptional drought, the most extreme category.
Utah is particularly hard hit, with two-thirds of the state mired in exceptional drought.
If the storm track turns, delivering storms to the southern portion of the continental United States, these states will get the reprieve they crave.
If not, residents, businesses and farms in the region will be in for a pattern of reduced water deliveries.