By Steve Scauzillo
When Frank Gehrke trudged up to Phillips Station in the Sierra Nevada on Wednesday he found what was missing at this time last year: Snow.
The annual spring snowpack survey conducted by Gehrke for the California Department of Water Resources revealed a snowpack depth of 58.4 inches, for 95 percent of the station’s historical average.
The manual measurement is a vast improvement from zero last year, when Gehrke plunged his measuring pole into dirt, revealing an overall water content from all snow in the Sierra Nevada at 5 percent of the April 1 historical average, the lowest amount ever recorded.
Typically at its deepest on April 1, the sun will melt the snow, slowly replenishing low level reservoirs that feed the State Water Project. On a typical year, California gets one-third its water supply from the snowpack melt.
One month ago, the snowpack at Phillips Station was 58.3 inches deep, according to the DWR. The department recently raised the allocation of water to be released from the state aqueduct from 5 percent to 40 percent.
“This will improve conditions for reservoir storage,” Gehrke said, adding a caveat that drought conditions remain in many parts of the state, including Southern California.
Before Gehrke’s survey on Wednesday, electronic snowpack readings were 97 percent in the Northern Sierra and Trinity area; 88 percent in the Central Sierra and 72 percent in the Southern Sierra, for a statewide average of 87 percent of normal, vastly superior to last year but not at 100 percent or above.
The readings were a disappointment when considering predictions of well-above average snowfall and rain from the large El Nino parked in the central Pacific.
Precipitation in eight northern California stations is at 51.9 inches, about 125 percent of average to date, but far from the 1997-1998 El Nino rain year totals of 82.4 inches, the department reported.
Snowpack surveys by the Department of Water Resources in late March and early April are indicators of how much water California will reap from the melting snowpack, which in normal years provides about 30 percent of the state’s water.
Reservoir levels are increasing. At Lake Oroville, levels are at 113 percent of historical average, or about 85 percent of capacity, said DWR officials. Lake Shasta is at 109 percent of historical average and 88 percent capacity.
“The water levels as compared to last year are much, much better,” said DWR’s Jan Frazier. But not enough to end a four-year drought. “We’ve been running on a deficit for so long, that we are still in drought. We have not broken the drought, although water levels are much better,” Frazier said.
Levels at Southern California reservoirs are much lower. At Castaic Lake, which stores water bought from Northern California, levels are 45 percent of historical average and only 40 percent capacity. Lake Perris is 43 percent and 36 percent, respectively.