Winter Brings Drought Relief to California

Snow in Squaw Valley, California, in November, 2010. Credit: flickr/climbin.metal

Although many Californians may not have enjoyed the frequent bouts of rain, wind and snow this winter, the parade of storms that have marched in from the Pacific have been beneficial for the state’s strained water resources. So much so, in fact, that Governor Jerry Brown (D) is expected to lift the state's official emergency drought proclamation today, which has been in effect since 2009.

As the New York Times reports, snowpack in the Sierra Nevada mountains is unusually deep, with as much as 50 feet (600 inches) of skier's gold having fallen this winter in some spots. Another news report depicts snow so deep in parts of the Sierras that it is piled as high as power lines. A note on the website of the Squaw Valley resort, a ski area near Lake Tahoe, Calif., indicates the glee that skiers and snowboarders have felt this winter.

Thank you Mother Nature! Squaw Valley has just reached over 50 FEET of total snow accumulation — something that has only happened three times since 1970. Better yet, this is benchmark has never been met before April. Miracle March and an amazing spring are on tap!

The weather pattern this winter was somewhat unusual for a La Niña winter, since La Niña conditions in the equatorial tropical Pacific tend to favor a storm track into the Pacific Northwest that can leave parts of California, particularly southern areas, high and dry. However, as this winter demonstrated, not every La Niña winter behaves the same way.

According to March 16 statement from the California Department of Water Resources, California snowpack was a whopping 129 percent of average for the date, and 125 percent of the average seasonal total, the highest it has been since 1995. In contrast, in 2007 the snowpack was just 39 percent of average. “Additionally, a majority of California's reservoirs are above normal storage levels,” the department stated.

For current reservoir conditions, check out this interactive map from KQED's ClimateWatch blog, a Climate Central content partner.

According to the Times, the three-year drought cost California farmers millions of dollars, particularly in the Central Valley, “as irrigation water became scarce and exacerbated the already soaring unemployment rate in many agricultural areas.” 

Like many Western states, California is facing long-term water challenges, with dwindling supplies and increasing demand. Many climate change studies show reduced precipitation in parts of the Southwest in coming decades, as well as changes to mountain snows and spring runoff, all of which could lead to more frequent water shortages. Despite the drought-relief, Gov. Brown is still urging California water users to continue their conservation efforts. 

“While this season’s surplus of rain and strong snowpack has clearly ended the dry spell for now,” Mr. Brown said in a statement, “it is critical that Californians continue to conserve water.”