Every month from January to May, a survey team from the California Department of Water Resources hikes to Phillips Station, high in the Sierra Mountains east of Sacramento. There, they measure snow depth and water content — how much liquid water is contained in the snowpack.
The April survey, conducted in the last couple days of March, is always met with high anticipation. At this point in the winter season, snowpack should be at its highest.
Sierra snowfall is just as important for drought conditions as the rain that runs off into reservoirs. Snow provides around 30 percent of California’s water, held on the mountains until spring when it begins to melt.
California statewide snowpack is just 87 percent of average for this time of year, the survey team found on Wednesday. Although the results are a huge improvement over last year at this time, snow and water content still fell short of average — even farther short of the snowy boom that was expected thanks to a very strong El Niño.
Frank Gehrke, chief of the California Cooperative Snow Surveys Program, leads the expedition to Phillips Station every month. “It’s clearly not what we had hoped,” Gehrke told the gaggle of press that made the trip with the team. “It seems good because it was so much better than last year.”
The statewide measurement in 2015 was just five percent of normal, the lowest it had ever been since 1950. “This was a dry dusty field last year,” Gehrke added.
But while this winter’s measurement exceeds every year since 2012, it wasn’t enough.
“It’s giving us a sober assessment of where were are,” California Water Resources Department spokesman Doug Carlson told The Washington Post. “We as a state agency didn’t buy into the hype of the arrival of El Niño. Many saw this ocean phenomenon as a savior. The department here was not buying into that, but we certainly had high hopes.”
Strong El Niños tend to enhance wintertime precipitation along the West Coast. Notably, in the El Niño winter of 1982-1983, there was over 150 inches of snow on the ground during the April survey. Come late May, there was still over 50 inches of snow, prompting an rare June survey measurement — something the team hasn’t had the opportunity to do since.
“It’s easy to fall into the trap of looking at a familiar phenomenon and maybe putting too much weight on it,” said Gehrke, “and it’s clear that’s what we did this year.”
After February’s abysmal snowfall, Gehrke said that March started out great for the state, but it turned dry after the first two weeks of the month. April snowfall is certainly possible, but as the sun gets higher in the sky, the chance of a big snow storm decrease rapidly after March.
Gehrke was clear to note the silver lining, though. This year could have been a lot worse, and that every bit helps. “It’s halting the downward spiral that we’ve been in the past two years,” he said. “It’s better than we were, let’s put it that way.”