January snows in the Sierras ease, but will not end, California's drought

Living on Earth
Measuring the snowpack

California Department of Water Resources employee Frank Gehrke measures the snowpack near Lake Tahoe. By taking a core sample of the snow and weighing it, Gehrke can calculate the water content of the snowpack in a given area.

Emmett FitzGerald

Despite a couple weeks of good rains and heavy snowfall in California's Sierra Mountains, state officials and water experts say the state should expect to be living with drought conditions for the foreseeable future.

“We don’t really know what’s going to happen,” says Peter Gleick, director of the Pacific Institute, a think tank devoted to global water issues. “It is an El Niño year, but El Niños can be wet for Northern California or they can be dry for Northern California. So it’s a little bit of a toss of the dice, still.”

No matter what the weather brings between now and April, Gleick says, Californians shouldn’t be thinking that El Niño is going to pull the state out of drought.

“Even if it’s a wet year in California, that by itself is not enough to get us out of the drought,” he stresses. “Our reservoirs are still really low, our soil moisture is low, our groundwater is overdrafted. We’re in a deeper hole than one year is going to fill.”

The Sierra snowpack makes up one-third of California’s water supply. At one point recently, the snowpack measured 130 percent above average for this time of year. But then another dry spell followed, with record high temperatures — which has now reduced the snowpack to below average levels.

“We need much better than just average,” says Frank Gehrke, who has been doing snowpack assessments for the California Department of Water Resources since 1981. “Hopefully, we will increase the percent above the average as we move on into the spring.”

“The snowpack is sort of the natural reservoir,” Gehrke explains. “The snow accumulates up here in the Sierra during the winter and then gradually melts when we hit late spring. And if we don’t have a good snowpack then those reservoirs essentially do not recover from the releases they had made the previous summer and fall.”

The most important test will come in April, when scientists tally up the total snow accumulation for the winter, says Gleick.

In February of 2013, for example, the Sierra snowpack was about at its current levels, but the next two months were bone-dry and snow levels ended up well below average for the year.

Despite the snow, the California Water Resources Control Board recently decided to extend Governor Jerry Brown’s emergency water restrictions through October 2016. So far, the water restrictions are working.

Max Gomberg, the Climate and Conservation Manager for the Control Board, says since the governor announced the water restrictions last April, Californians in urban areas have cut their water use by 25 percent.

“It’s really a tremendous achievement,” Gomberg says. “It shows that people are paying attention, and care for this precious resource. Because 25 percent — that’s one in every four drops of water that was used is no longer being used.”

And water conservation is only going to get more important in the future, Gomberg adds. Drought is a natural part of the climate in California, but climate change is making it more common and more severe.

“The drought we’ve experienced in the past four years in California has been so severe we’ve lost 22 million trees,” Gomberg says. “We’ve had a tremendous number of forest fires, communities have run out of water, we’ve lost 97 percent of some of our fish species. The impacts have really been devastating.”

Peter Gleick says with warming temperatures and increased demands on the water supply, California may never really “get out” of the drought.

“[Basically], a drought is not having enough water to do what you want,” he explains. “And in that sense, the Western United States, one could argue, is in a permanent drought. We no longer have enough water to do everything that everybody wants — at least as inefficiently as we’re doing it today.”

This article is based on a story that aired on PRI's Living on Earth with Steve Curwood.