California faces dismal snowpack in the Sierra Nevada

California is going into spring with minuscule snowpack in the Sierra Nevada, leaving the state in a third year of extreme drought and with depleted reservoirs to draw on during what’s likely to be another hot, parched summer.

The mountain snowpack, as measured by snow sensors across the Sierras, now stands at just 38% of the long-term average.

State officials stood on bare ground at a snow survey site in the mountains on Friday, saying the paltry snowpack reflects the state’s accelerating water challenges with climate change. They appealed for Californians to step up efforts to save water.

“We are calling on all Californians to use water wisely, to conserve as much as you can,” said Karla Nemeth, director of the state Department of Water Resources.

Snow typically makes up nearly a third of California’s water supply and feeds reservoirs across Northern California as it melts in the spring and summer.

The levels of most of California’s biggest reservoirs, from Shasta Lake to San Luis Reservoir, measure far below average.

“Climate change is here and it’s changing our state. It’s changing our region,” said Wade Crowfoot, the state’s natural resources secretary.

Gov. Gavin Newsom this week issued an order for urban water suppliers to implement more aggressive conservation measures, requiring them to activate “Level 2” of their local drought contingency plans to prepare for a shortage.

Water deliveries have also been cut back for many farming areas in the state this year. Nemeth said those cutbacks are expected to lead to more farmland being left dry and fallow this year.

Warmer temperatures brought on by climate change have been making droughts more intense in California and across the West. The past three years have been among the state’s driest on record.

Last year, the Sierra Nevada snowpack peaked at 72% of average in April but then rapidly melted during the hottest spring on record.

California ended 2021 with major storms that blanketed the Sierra Nevada with above-average snow. But that bounty swiftly dwindled during the driest January through March on record.

State officials spoke at the Phillips Station snow survey site, where they’ve been measuring the snowpack since 1941. The snow at the site was 2 1/2 inches deep, just 4% of average, said Sean de Guzman, water supply forecasting manager for the Department of Water Resources.

Crowfoot noted that seven years ago, during the last severe drought, Gov. Jerry Brown had stood at the same spot on bare, dry ground. Since then, Crowfoot said, five of the last seven winters have been dry.

“The question is, what are we going to do about it?” he said. “We are not bystanders to the climate crisis. We are protagonists.”

While working to reduce carbon pollution, he said, the state needs to adjust to the warmer, drier climate.

“Communities across our state need to eliminate water waste, continue to become more efficient with the water that’s used,” Crowfoot said. Echoing an appeal made by Brown during the last drought, he said everyone needs to “make conservation a way of life.”

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