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Climate and Environment

Why California's 'Epic Start' For The Snowpack Isn't Enough (Yet) To Fix The State's Dwindling Water Supplies

Snow blankets the roadside at the foot of a mountain. A line of cars sit in backed up traffic, receding into the distance.
Recent snowfall in El Dorado County, CA.
(Courtesy of Caltrans)
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In recent years, the snowpack in the Sierra Nevadas has been sparse, which has put pressure on our water supplies.

After storms this month, the snowpack in the mountains has jumped from 16% to about 160% of normal in some regions. Meteorologists define “normal” as an average of the precipitation levels on a specific date over a 30-year period.

There's been so much snow so far in December that meteorologists have called it an "epic start" for the water year. With more than 200 inches already fallen, California set a new record for snowfall for a December and recorded the third snowiest month since 1970.

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That’s good news as California deals with the impacts of the climate emergency, like prolonged drought that has shrunk reservoirs to historic lows. And meteorologists say even more snow is forecast.

Though California’s drought is far from over, the wet weather this month is a boost to the state's water deficit.

Snowpack is a critical source of water for California. In a good year, it provides about 30% of the state’s fresh water supply. In the spring and summer, the snow will melt and eventually end up in state reservoirs.

While California’s climate has long fluctuated between drought and deluge, the climate emergency has exacerbated that cycle. Now we’re experiencing fewer wet years, and dry years that are even drier and hotter.

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After the lack of snow the last two years, we need a much-better-than-average snow dump this year to get reservoirs to normal levels.

Here's a look at the snowpack as of Dec. 28

A map of California indicates the snowpack levels compared to the average as of Dec. 18. From top to bottom: Northern Sierra 145%, Central Sierra 166% and Southern Sierra 167%
(Courtesy Calif. Dept. of Water Resources)
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