California's Surprise Snowpack Has Water Managers Smiling

sierra snow pack photo

Photo by chucklepix via Flickr Creative Commons

With what might cause a whiplash-like doubletake, California has some happy news about its water supplies. The Sierra snowpack is larger than normally expected at this time of year. Up to 60% of California's water comes from the Sierra snowpack, and it's a pleasant twist that after quite a few dry years, there's finally a lot of it. Part of the reason has been some crazy rain and snowfalls unexpected with the current La Niña year, but researchers wonder if it will hold out. The SFGate reports, "The water content of the snow in the Sierra is well above normal for March, according to measurements taken manually and electronically throughout the state. The mountains statewide actually contain more frozen water than what would be standard a month from now, when snowpack in California is typically at its peak."

Researchers from the California Department of Water Resources found that the water content in the snowpack was at 128% of normal, and statewide water content is at 124% normal. There is room in reservoirs to catch water as the melts start, and the state might feel a little relief of the water burden this year.

The SF Gate states, "Lake Oroville, the primary storage reservoir for the State Water Project, is 76 percent of capacity, which is 106 percent of normal for this time. Shasta Lake, which is part of the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation's Central Valley Project and is the largest reservoir in the state, is currently at 83 percent of capacity, or 112 percent of normal."

The strange and wildly unpredictable weather this year thanks to La Niña has researchers surprised -- usually La Niña years are not this wet, and the rains have been followed by warm weather so far. Still, there's snow.

"Things are a lot brighter now that we've got this snow on the ground," he said. "There's more of a comfort level," Frank Gehrke, the chief snow surveyor for the California Department of Water Resources, told SFGate.

Of course, the relief is great, but underscores the state's struggles with water. California's rising population of people, and it's role in providing a significant portion of the nation's fruits, vegetables and dairy, has the state strapped for water. Plus, finding a balance between human wants and ecosystem needs is a struggle, especially around the San Joaquin River delta. While there's plenty of snow this year, only about 60% of the water requested by cities will be able to be delivered, due to pumping restrictions to protect endangered fish.

Water problems for California are far from over, but at least this year will give a little wiggle room while dealing with them.

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