California snowpack at record levels, posing flood risks

Snowy Sierra Nevada mountain range
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April 4, 2023 — California’s snowpack is now one of the largest ever, bringing both drought relief and flooding concerns, the California Department of Water ResourcesOpens in a new tab. (DWR) reported yesterday.

Above-Average Snowpack.

DWR recently conducted a snow survey at Phillips StationOpens in a new tab., which recorded 126.5 inches of snow depth and a snow water equivalent of 54 inches. The snow water equivalent is a measure of the amount of water contained in the snowpack and is a key component of DWR’s water supply forecast. The statewide snowpack’s snow water equivalent, as measured by DWR’s electronic sensors placed throughout the state, is 61.1 inches, which is 237 percent of average for this time of year.

This year’s snowpack is one of the largest on record in California and is posing severe flood risks, particularly in the Southern San Joaquin Valley. The state’s flood infrastructure will continue to face climate-driven challenges for moving and storing as much of the flood water as possible.

For California’s snow course measurements, only 1952, 1969 and 1983 recorded statewide results above 200 percent of the April 1 average, DWR reportsOpens in a new tab.. While above average across the state this year, snowpack varies considerably by region. The Southern Sierra snowpack is currently 300 percent of its April 1 average and the Central Sierra is at 237 percent of its April 1 average. However, the critical Northern Sierra, where the state’s largest surface water reservoirs are located, is at 192 percent of its April 1 average.

Groundwater Recovery; Water Conservation.

While winter storms have helped the snowpack and reservoirs, groundwater basins are much slower to recover. Many rural areas are still experiencing water supply challenges, especially communities that rely on groundwater supplies which have been depleted due to prolonged drought. Long-term drought conditions in the Colorado River Basin will also continue to impact the water supply for millions of Californians.

The state is encouraging Californians to make water conservation a way of life as more swings between wet and dry conditions will continue in the future.

Because of the swings, whether the state is out of drought is over is up for debate.  According to The GuardianOpens in a new tab., “The record snowpack and rains have erased the most severe signs of drought in many parts of the state. The US Drought Monitor has reported that only 9% of California is experiencing ‘severe’ or ‘exceptional’ drought conditions this month, down from 55% last fall. But the changes are largely surface-level – literally. Groundwater reserves remain critically low. And the state’s farms and cities are still using far more water than is available.”

Snow Surveys to Continue.

DWR conducts five media-oriented snow surveys at Phillips Station each winter near the first of each month, January through April and, if necessary, May. Given the size of this year’s snowpack with more snow in the forecast, DWR anticipates conducting a May snow survey at Phillips Station.


Since 1995, Deborah has owned and operated LegalTech LLC with a focus on water rights. Before moving to Arizona in 1986, she worked as a quality control analyst for Honeywell and in commercial real estate, both in Texas. She learned about Arizona's water rights from the late and great attorney Michael Brophy of Ryley, Carlock & Applewhite. Her side interests are writing (and reading), Wordpress programming and much more.

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June 1, 2023 1:23 pm
Holy cow! That’s a ton of snow. I think it’s interesting that a couple of snowstorms can cause a flood.

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