‘Average is awesome’: California pleased with result of critical snowpack survey

<span>The snowpack supplies roughly 30% of California’s water as it melts.</span><span>Photograph: Tayfun Coskun/Anadolu via Getty Images</span>
The snowpack supplies roughly 30% of California’s water as it melts.Photograph: Tayfun Coskun/Anadolu via Getty Images
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On Tuesday morning California officials trekked into the mountains to share some exciting and unusual news: the state’s snowpack measurement is just about average. Across the state, the snowpack came in at roughly 110% – a measurement that is exceedingly rare in a changing climate.

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The fourth survey of the year, conducted at the beginning of April, is considered one of the most crucial. It serves as an indicator for how the state’s water supply will fare through the drier, warmer seasons ahead. The snowpack acts as a water savings account for the state, supplying roughly 30% of California’s water and slowly refilling reservoirs, pumping rivers and streams and wetting soils during the dry, warm seasons as it melts. April typically marks the shift out of the precipitation season, which is why this snowpack measurement carries so much weight.

“Average is awesome,” Karla Nemeth, the director of the California department of water resources said, flanked by the governor, Gavin Newsom, and other officials in front of the picturesque slopes covered in white. “We have had some pretty big swings in the last couple years but average may be becoming a less and less common feature of snowpack in California.”

The manual survey conducted at Philips Station in the Sierra Nevada showed 64in of stacked snow, or about 113% of average for this location. As the threat of increasing extremes on both sides of the hydrological spectrum loom large, these “normal” numbers are considered a cause for celebration.

A smaller snowpack showcases the risks of scarcity and drought that may be looming in seasons ahead. One that is large, like last year’s, has the potential for floods and slides as the weather warms. But at just about average, “we are sitting in a good spot”, said Dr Andrew Schwartz, the lead scientist for Central Sierra Snow Laboratory. “That means we can carry forward the benefits of last season for another year.”

The snow measurement in 2023 was alarmingly large. Last year’s April measurement came in at 237% of average, after the state suffered some of the driest weather in its history. “These extremes are becoming the new reality and that new reality requires a new approach and a new sophistication in terms of the way we address and manage our water,” Newsom said during the press conference on Tuesday morning.

Newsom joined water officials after the manual measurement to highlight that the state is taking key steps to plan for a more precarious future, improving the resiliency of water infrastructure, engaging more deeply with Indigenous leaders on sustainability and increasing the flexibility of regulatory systems among them. The 2023 plan, announced on Tuesday, adds to a blueprint that has evolved over the decades, updated every five years.

“By 2040, in a matter of years,” the governor said, “scientists say we will be living with about 10% less water.” He added that officials are exploring desalination, more storm water capture, water recycling and other strategies to better use what is available.

The April measurement came after a slow start to the season, when rain totals outpaced snow, leading water managers and scientists to worry that the state might see a “snow drought”. But with the help from some strong, cold storms, the snowpack bulked up quickly at the start of the year, a trend Schwartz said is starting to become the new normal.

Now managers will be looking closely at temperatures, which will determine how quickly the snow melts. Even with a strong spring snowpack, a fast melt-off could leave less water available in the system to capture and store.

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Changes fueled by the climate crisis have created new complications when it comes to planning, especially because temperatures can be hard to forecast. And far more needs to be done to secure water in an uncertain future.

“Climate is what you expect and weather is what you get – and we got some interesting weather this year,” said Jeffrey Mount, a senior fellow at the PPIC Water Policy Center. California’s water system is designed around an average year, he said, with averages helping decision-makers determine adequate regulations, distribution of water rights and reservoir management. “Yet it’s the last kind of year you would expect to have.”

The wet periods are getting wetter and the dry periods drier in California’s already highly variable climate, and some experts were bracing for a swing back to drought following last year’s deluges. Instead, the state was given a gift.

“We came into the season with our reservoirs in good shape, we put a substantial amount of water back in the ground, our demand was low because our soils were so wet, and now we have back-to-back good years,” Mount said. What matters now is what California does with it.

Groundwater, an essential part of California’s water supply that provides roughly 40% of water used by farms and communities, has not bounced back after being overdrawn during times of drought. Roughly a third of monitored wells are below normal levels and hundreds of wells are at an all-time low.

But with a strong snowpack and the water flowing readily on the surface, the badly needed reprieve has bought the state more time to make key changes. “It is a chance to have intelligent conversations about the future,” Mount said. “Sometimes the emergency is the great motivator to get things done, but it is nice not to have that distraction.”

The two strong water years come at a time when the state is working on new, more sustainable strategies to better store and distribute water when it is abundant to plan for when the hydrological coin inevitably flips. Mount said it will be crucial for the public and for decision-makers to not lose sight of the next drought.

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But there will be disagreements ahead on how to chart the best path forward. During the snowpack announcement, Newsom took a moment to plug his controversial Delta Conveyance Project, a plan that has been in the works for decades, which would use a tunnel to carry water from the Sacramento River and pump flows into the northern end of the California Aqueduct. Diverse coalitions of environmentalists, tribes, fishing groups and state legislators have criticized the plan, but Newsom heralded it as “foundational” and “critical”, calling it “a climate project”.

Two strong water years have offered the space for decision-makers and communities to look closely at options and opportunities. But conditions can change rapidly, especially as the climate crisis turns up the dial.

“For the public and the legislature, the biggest challenge is that people lose interest in making the difficult choices that have to be made to plan for and respond to the future,” Mount said. “Every single water manager still wrings their hands every day because 365 days from now we could be having a very different conversation.”