Sierra Snowpack, Thinned by Climate Change, at Record Low in Waterless California

Following the official measurement, the governor ordered cities and towns to cut water use by 25 percent for the first time in state history.

It was bad news for California following annual snowpack measurements throughout the towering­­––and usually snow-covered––Sierra Nevada mountain range. There was very little snow.

On Wednesday, the Sierra snowpack held only 1.4 inches of water when 28.3 inches is normal for this time of year. The numbers foreshadow yet another gloomy year of drought in a state that depends on a steady stream of snowmelt to replenish its reservoirs and aquifers.

The snowpack numbers recorded at more than 300 locations in the Sierra are far worse than the end-of-season numbers since 1950, when record-keeping began. The previous worst years came last year and in 1977 when the snowpack held 7.1 inches of water.

The dismal number means there will be minimal runoff this spring in central and northern California streams and rivers.

The Sierra snowpack is vital to California. As much as one-third of the state's water supply comes from snowpack that melts and is ultimately captured in a series of reservoirs for use as drinking water and for agricultural irrigation. The state draws the remainder of its water from aquifers and the Colorado River.

At one of the measuring stations where California Gov. Jerry Brown observed the procedure, there is usually 5½ feet of snow on the ground this time of year. But Wednesday there was no snow, just the bare ground.

Following the official measurement, the governor announced he was ordering unprecedented water reductions statewide.

This year, the snowpack, which is normally at its peak April 1, is 5 percent of the historical average. That means reservoirs aren't filling and other water resources are being strained, said Doug Carlson, a spokesman for the California Department of Water Resources.

"There is precious little water coming out of the snowpack this year," he said.

Below-normal precipitation, combined with unusually warm weather, has produced meager snowfall during the traditional wet season that runs November through March.

"There's barely any snow to be seen," he said.

When the snow melts, it trickles into creeks and streams, then pours into rivers that feed the state's vast reservoir system where water is stored for distribution during the dry months of summer and fall.

The severe drought, worsened by climate change, has choked California in the last three years. It has sparked raging wildfires, cost billions in lost agriculture production and triggered statewide conservation measures.

Temperatures in the state continue to rise. Last year California recorded its warmest average year since record-keeping began in 1895. At the same time, progressively infrequent winter storms are bringing less snow. The state also endured one of the lowest rainfall totals in decades last year.

"The big picture here is we are getting hotter and dryer and that can't be good for state that is essentially a Mediterranean climate without a lot of water resources," Carlson said.

Climate change is a contributing factor in the paltry snowpack this year, said Dan Cayan, a climate researcher at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography and U.S. Geological Survey.

It's responsible for the record temperatures in the state and is a factor in the changing upper level meteorological conditions that have caused storm patterns to shift away from the state, he said.

Cayan said the poor snowpack this year should not trigger panic, though with each passing year of record temperatures and drought, the problem becomes increasingly worrisome.

"Next year will be critical," he said.

After witnessing the snowless landscape, Brown announced his executive order that calls for a mandatory 25 percent reduction in water use and a requirement that new homes feature water-efficient irrigation if the builder plans to use potable water for landscaping. He also called for 50 million square feet of lawns to be replaced with drought-tolerant landscaping and required campuses, golf courses and cemeteries to cut back on water.

"This historic drought demands unprecedented actions," Brown said in a statement.

Last month, Brown also signed a $1.1 billion emergency drought relief bill that includes funding for water recycling and drinking water quality programs.

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