California’s First 2018 Survey: 3 Percent of Normal Snowpack

PHILLIPS STATION -- With the the turn of the calendar, Wednesday was the first opportunity to look at the snow levels at Sierra at Tahoe.

For over three decades, Frank Gehrke has been taking snow measurements at Phillips Station.

"So what we will do is just, the first is 100 feet, and then 50s and we will see if we hit any snow. I think we might at the very end," Gehrke said.

Seven locations make up the nearly 500 foot snow survey and it wasn't until the sixth stop that Frank was able to get to work.

The results: two-fifths of an inch of snow water, roughly 3 percent of what the average is at Phillips Station in early January over the past 50 years.

At 103 different locations across the Sierra Nevada, snow water levels were about 24 percent of average for early January.

"Clearly November and December have been disappointing," Gehrke said.

Officials spoke afterward about the glaring lack of snow to start 2018, but said it isn't time to panic.

"I'm not going to say the anxiety level is any higher than normal ... being the first, it's still early. We are obviously hopeful there will be more snow the next time we come out here in the February, March and April snow surveys," said Grant Davis, director of the Department of Water Resources.


Officials said last year, which was one of the wettest in California history and pulled the state out of a five-year drought, relied on a particularly wet January and February.

"We live in the most variable weather climate in California, in the country. And that variability is what we have to manage ... Again, the red-headed stepchild of North America is California's weather," Davis said.

The wide-ranging variability of the weather prompting officials to continue to call for California residents to continue to conserve water, while the hope remains that next time Frank pulls out the tape at Phillips Station, he will have more than one spot to visit.

The low snow level also led to an explanation of "atmospheric rivers" by Davis.

"Those are the extreme weather events we rely on for much of our water supply. Often half of our water supply comes in the form of atmospheric rivers," he said.

Officials say high pressure zones spanning much of the western U.S. have kept these rivers from bringing rain and snow to the state. They say the dive into studying atmospheric rivers is just emerging and could be a key in helping California avoid water crises in the future.

"You need big data, you need the type of super-computing that is capable of giving western water managers more accurate measure of what the precipitation pattern is going to be. We are making good steady progress," Davis said.

That progress will help forecast how water will be managed based on the weather set to come in the future.

"Seventy-two hours out, our ability to predict precipitation is about 70 percent accurate. As you go out, say two weeks, that accuracy falls to 7 percent. We have to do a better job of understanding the atmospheric river. That is where science needs to go," Davis said.