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After driest years on record, California now has highest snowpack in decades

Sean de Guzman in a bright blue jacket as he snow shoes to the survey site.
Fred Greaves
California Department of Water Resources
Sean de Guzman, Manager of the California Department of Water Resources Snow Surveys and Water Supply Forecasting Unit walks towards the next measurement spot during the fourth media snow survey of the 2023 season at Phillips Station in the Sierra Nevada Mountains on April 3, 2023.

BAKERSFIELD, Calif. – A series of cold and drenching storms have supercharged California’s snowpack to levels not seen since the early 1950s, busting records and potentially causing big problems for communities downstream as the weather warms.

State scientists today completed a snow survey at the Phillips Station near South Lake Tahoe. Sensors measured roughly 10 feet of snow. That’s more than double the average, a feat the Sierra has only experienced three times before – in 1952, 1969 and 1983.

The deluge is great news for a state that, just six months ago, was contending with a debilitating drought amid one of its driest periods in modern history.

“This year’s result will go down as one of the largest snowpack years on record in California,” says Sean de Guzman with the state’s Department of Water Resources.

He noted Monday’s statewide measurement is tied with the all-time record of 1952.

California’s snowpack measures 237% of average to date, tying the state’s all-time record set in 1952. This Department of Water Resources graph shows snowpack levels across the decades.
California Department of Water Resources
California’s snowpack measures 237% of average to date, tying the state’s all-time record set in 1952. This Department of Water Resources graph shows snowpack levels across the decades.

But to the frustration of water managers across the state, California’s snow didn’t fall evenly across the Sierra.

The southern Sierra saw an astonishing 300% average snowfall, while the northern Sierra – where the state’s largest reservoirs are located – saw less than 200%.

That means the southern San Joaquin Valley is especially vulnerable to flooding as a torrent of snowmelt comes rushing down in the coming months.

“The big question … is do we have the infrastructure to handle this, and I think the consensus is ‘no.’ Our systems are not really designed to handle a sustained, very high-flow spring like this,” says Jeffrey Mount, a senior fellow at the Public Policy Institute of California.

Prior storms have pounded the state’s reservoirs, essentially removing a big tool in the state’s flood-control toolbox, he says.

“We start out with one arm tied behind our back in all of this because our reservoirs are full,” he says. “So there's not a lot of opportunity to capture runoff and regulate that runoff in ways that significantly reduce the potential for flooding.”

State forecasts predict runoff along the Kern River will exceed 400% of average flows, with the Tule and Kaweah rivers not far behind.

Those waterways historically fed the Tulare Lake, which recently reappeared for the first time since 1997.

Satellite imagery shows the lake is already stretching more than 200 square miles in mostly Kings County, threatening communities and submerging farmland.

Geo-data scientist Shubo Biswas recently published an online mapping tool that allows users to explore the flooded lake basin.

State flood-fighters are stationed in Tulare County and are working with local Cal Fire crews to improve water systems across the region. They warn the worst is yet to come.

“This year’s severe storms and flooding is the latest example that California’s climate is becoming more extreme,” said DWR Director Karla Nemeth in a statement.

Joshua Yeager is a Report For America corps reporter covering Kern County for KVPR.