- California has faced heavy precipitation in recent weeks, leading to a high snowpack.
- The snowpack provides a third of California’s water needs, but it’s too soon to assess the impact on the drought.
- Ski resorts are also benefitting from the snow, with one resort recording 7 inches per minute.
Storms that have pummeled California with heavy precipitation in recent weeks could be a win-win for skiers and the state’s water supply — but the increase in water is not yet enough to compensate for years of severe drought.
Officials in California announced Tuesday the state’s snowpack — snow that falls and does not melt for months due to freezing temperatures — measured 55.5 inches of snow, or 174% of the average for this time of year, marking the best start to the snowy season in 40 years.
Although the storms have caused severe flooding in some parts of California, the snowfall was a good sign for a state that has experienced years of drought and low levels in its water reservoirs, with the past three years being the driest ever recorded.
“We’re very excited to see storms coming through, but we can’t talk about impact until March or April,” Andrew Schwartz, the lead scientist at the UC Berkeley Central Sierra Snow Lab, told Insider. The snow lab is located near Tahoe in Soda Springs, one of the snowiest places in the US, and has been tracking snowpack for decades.
The snowpack in the Sierra Nevada, the mountain range that runs along the eastern part of the state, is often called California’s “frozen reservoirs.” It typically supplies about a third of California’s water needs, which is why officials closely monitor it for water management and planning.
Though the high snowpack this early in the season is promising, if the precipitation doesn’t continue, it may not be enough to significantly address the drought.
“It’s just far too early to tell. Last year, we had a record-breaking December,” Schwartz said. “Everyone was celebrating that the drought was over and then we had the driest January to March on record.”
If the “faucet shuts off in January,” it could be another similarly dry year, he added.
The California Department of Water Resources said Tuesday the snow survey this year was similar to those in January 2013 and 2022, “when the January 1 snowpack was at or above average conditions, only for dry weather to set in and lead to drought conditions by the end of the water year (September 30).”
“Big snow totals are always welcome, but we still have a long way to go before the critical April 1 total,” Sean de Guzman, who manages DWR’s snow surveys and water supply forecasting, said in a statement Tuesday, adding: “If January through March of 2023 turn out to be similar to last year, we would still end the water year in severe drought with only half of an average year’s snowpack.”
Two skiers in the Sierra Nevadas.
John P Kelly/Getty Images
Great for California and great for skiing
In the meantime, the heavy snowfall is a welcome sight for the state’s ski resorts. Palisades Tahoe’s homepage boasts “NEARLY 5 FEET OF SNOW” with more in the forecast, urging visitors to plan their trip.
“We’re really getting tons of precipitation out here and couldn’t be more stoked,” Patrick Lacey, a spokesperson for Palisades Tahoe, told Insider.
There are some drawbacks to the storms and heavy snow, including an increased risk of avalanches in the backcountry, according to Schwartz. Chair lifts can also be temporarily shut down due to high winds or other storm-related factors. The snow doesn’t all come down perfectly for skiing, with wet conditions bringing icy snow — or “Sierra cement,” as some locals call it — in addition to powder.
Lacey said the resort is temporarily closing lifts and managing for avalanche safety as needed, and that all-in-all it’s brought lots of skiers to the mountain. He said the resort measured a record 7 inches of snow per hour on New Year’s Day, which was one of their busiest days of the season so far.
“We’re going to have months and months of skiing on bluebird days because of these storms,” Lacey said, referring sunny days with blankets of fresh snowfall. He added that it’s not unusual for Tahoe to get a bunch of snow all at once rather than a few inches per day.
“Lately we’ve been getting feet and feet each day, which is absolutely fabulous for the snowpack,” he said. “It’s great for the state of California to get out of this drought, and it’s great for skiing.”
Schwartz, who is a snowboarder himself, was also stoked about the start to the season, but hopes it can continue: “It’s really exciting and fantastic that we’ve been set up this way this early in the season. We’ll just cross our fingers that the water keeps coming in. “
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