West's Water Crisis May Be Worse Than You Think

'We are looking down the barrel of a loaded gun,' says one expert
By Arden Dier,  Newser Staff
Posted Apr 5, 2022 12:36 PM CDT
Snowpack Suggests California Drought Will Only Get Worse
Left, to right, Lauren Alkire, Nick Ellis, and Sean de Guzman, manager of snow surveys and water supply forecasting unit, conduct the third snow survey of the season at Phillips Station near Echo Summit, Calif., March 1, 2022.   (Ken James/California Department of Water Resources via AP, File)

(Newser) – The snowpack in the Sierra Nevada mountains, which provides 30% of California's fresh water, is at its lowest level in seven years—a devastating sign of drought conditions to come. The end-of-winter snowpack measurement—which comes from measurements at more than 265 sites across the state, taken annually on April 1—usually returns the most snow of any measurement taken throughout the year. But it's 38% of the normal level this year, officials announced Friday. The measurement at Phillips Station, south of Lake Tahoe, was particularly alarming with snow just 2.5 inches deep, compared to an average of 66.5 inches for this time of year, and containing the equivalent of an inch of water, per CNN.

The first three months of the year marked the driest January to March period "by a huge margin" in 101 years of records at three observing stations, according to the National Weather Service. "During that period, California's only received about half the amount of rainfall recorded in comparison to 2013, which ended up turning into the driest calendar year on record," said Sean de Guzman of the California Department of Water Resources, per CNN. Snowpack levels were above average in December, after a very dry November, but weak precipitation followed. Now "we are looking down the barrel of a loaded gun with our water resources in the West," Dr. Andrew Schwartz of the Central Sierra Snow Lab at the University of California, Berkeley, writes at the New York Times.

The results signal "a deepening of the drought—already the worst in the western United States in 1,200 years—and another potentially catastrophic fire season for much of the West," adds Schwartz. He notes current models, lacking information on snow melt patterns and the climate, are in dire need of an update despite "shrinking funding for science and engineering." "Given the shrinking reservoir levels and meager snowpacks of recent years, discrepancies between the amount of water expected and what arrives could mean the difference between having water in the taps and entire towns running dry." California Gov. Gavin Newsom issued an executive order last week calling for "aggressive water conservation," per the Los Angeles Times. (Read more California drought stories.)

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