Worst Sierra Snowpack in Five Years Threatens State Water Supplies

Friday, March 29, 2013
Frank Gehrke, chief of California Cooperative Snow Surveys, prepares to take snow samples at Phillips Station in El Dorado County March 28, 2013. (photo: Randall Benton, Sacramento Bee)

What started out looking like a promising wet winter for an ever-increasingly thirsty state has turned to major disappointment.


Snowpack in the Sierra Nevada, the source of much of California’s water, is about 52% of normal, according to state water officials. It’s the worst measurement since 2007 and the third worst since 1994.


Heavy rain and snowfall at the end of 2012 had buoyed meteorological spirits but atmospheric conditions in January, February and March pushed storm fronts east, pounding the Plains and Eastern United States, but leaving California high and dry.


The Northern Sierra Nevada Mountains have about 55% of their normal snowpack, the Central 57% and the South 40%. By contrast, the Central Sierra was at 134% of normal when measured on January 2.


The puny snowpack will no doubt be cited in coming months as the state rolls out and debates a plan to remake the San Joaquin-Sacramento Delta, where much of the melting snow flows. Governor Jerry Brown wants to spend $23 billion building two huge tunnels for moving water around the delta for shipment south. The plan is billed as part delta restoration and part reconstruction of water delivery systems.


The tunnels are part of a proposal that includes more than 100,000 acres of floodplains and tidal marsh restoration. Funding for the project hasn’t been nailed down yet. Water user fees would be used for a big chunk of the tunnel construction.


An $11 billion water bond that would probably supply billions for the project was bumped from the November 2012 ballot to 2014 for the same reason it was originally bumped from 2010 to 2012: a suspicion it wouldn’t pass.

–Ken Broder


To Learn More:

California's Sierra Snow Pack: Dry and Getting Drier, 52 Percent of Historic Norm (by Paul Rogers, San Jose Mercury News)

California's Small Snowpack Raises Chills (by Peter Fimrite, San Francisco Chronicle)

Water Managers Despair: Snowpack 50% of Normal (Associated Press)

30 Years Later, Brown Restokes Water War Fears with Delta Tunnel Project (by Ken Broder, AllGov California)


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