Huge snowpack prompts California officials to revisit drought status

Frank Gehrke, right, chief of the California Cooperative Snow Surveys Program for the Department of Water Resources, places the snow survey tube on a scale held by Nic Enstice, of the Sierra Nevada Conservancy while doing the manual snow survey at Phillips Station on March 30 near Echo Summit, Calif. State water officials are considering changing California's drought status.

SACRAMENTO — Is California about to formally declare an end to its five-year drought?

After abundant winter rainfall and snow accumulation, state officials plan an announcement about California’s “drought status” within the next week, said Doug Carlson, spokesman for the state Department of Water Resources.

Exactly when the statement will come is still unknown, as is when and if the State Water Project will increase its current allocation of 60 percent of its 29 member water agencies’ requested supplies, Carlson said.

But the DWR’s manual snow survey on March 30, which found a season-high snow-water equivalent of 46.1 inches in the Sierra Nevada near Lake Tahoe, makes the state’s rebound from drought all the more evident, officials say.

“I think that the winter season has certainly been encouraging, and one might be justifiably optimistic about what our availability for water distribution will be later in the year,” Carlson said. “Certainly it’s a better picture than we’ve seen the last five years. I think anybody can take heart in that.”

The manual survey at Phillips Station, about 90 miles east of Sacramento, was 183 percent of the late March and early April average for the site, which is 25.2 inches. Snow accumulation has increased each month since January, when just 6 inches of snow-water equivalent was found.

The survey came as electronic measurements showed that water content in the northern Sierra was 40.8 inches on March 30, 147 percent of the multi-decade average for the date, according to the DWR. The central Sierra’s 50.5 inches is 175 percent of average, while the 43.9 inches in the southern Sierra is 164 percent of average, the agency reports.

The big snowmelt will result in high water in many rivers through the spring, state climatologist Michael Anderson said.

“The snowpack at Phillips today was almost 8 feet deep,” Carlson said. “That is a tremendous contrast for anybody to recognize what kind of a year it has been. Two years ago … there was literally no snow there.”

Northern California legislators and water district officials have urged Gov. Jerry Brown to declare that the drought is over, citing the winter’s deluges and heavy snowpack. The governor’s executive orders mandating continued, long-term water savings were appropriate, “but this power should not be abused,” state Sen. Jim Nielsen, R-Gerber, said in February.

State water regulators have so far been hesitant, noting that some Central Valley communities still depend on trucked and bottled water and that groundwater — the source of at least one-third of the supplies Californians use — will need more than one wet winter to be replenished in many areas.

But this year’s snowpack ranks in the upper quarter of historic snowpacks and is providing “great reservoir recovery,” said Frank Gehrke, the DWR’s snow surveys chief.

“The storm track shifted away from California during March, but we still have a very substantial snowpack, particularly in the higher elevations in the central and southern Sierra,” Gehrke told reporters after conducting his latest survey. “This is an extremely good year from the snowpack standpoint.”

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