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How Is the Snowpack in California Affecting the Drought?


We’re entering year six of one of the most severe droughts in modern history. The California drought continues as farms struggle and grass shrivels up and dies across the state. However, if you only follow the news the drought seems to have gone away. While the headlines instructed citizens to conserve water and take precautionary measures in late 2015, drought awareness seems to have faded in recent months.

oct_blog_set2_snowpackdroughtWhy is this? Did we win? Is the drought over? Not by a long shot, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor. As of now, 62 percent of Californians reside in severe to exceptional drought conditions. A wetter winter would be welcome, but heavy snowfall and precipitation alone cannot cure a multi-year drought.

“Absolutely we’re still in a drought,” notes Peter Gleick, co-founder of a water think tank named Pacific Institute. “We are way below normal. Our reservoirs are low. Our groundwater is still being grossly over-pumped.” While this seems like cause for alarm, most residents seem to have relaxed their drought-curbing practices. What happened?

The level of snowpack in the Sierras may have played a part in the declining alarm. In late winter of 2015, California Governor Jerry Brown visited the peaks in the Sierra Nevada and observed almost no snow. At that time, the snowpack was at its lowest ever recorded level. Snowpack was at 5 percent of the historical average.

After this reading Brown declared a state of emergency in California, prompting residents everywhere to reduce their water use, cut back on car washes and landscaping, and generally function with a pressing awareness of actionable conservation. Many urban areas succeeded in cutting water use by at least 20 percent.

However, a year later the snowpack was back up to standard levels, coming in at 97 percent of the historical average. Maintaining a consistent level of snowpack is crucial in fighting drought conditions, as the Sierra Nevada snowpack is responsible for approximately 30 percent of the state’s water supply. The monitoring point, known as Phillips Station, was covered in 58.4 inches of snow following a storm brought on by El Niño.

The increased snowpack is a “good sign for water suppliers and for California’s agricultural community,” stated Matthew Heberger, a researcher for the Pacific Institute in Oakland. However, this single-location reading may have caused too much reassurance for the general public. Says Heberger, “it shows that our outlook is better but it doesn’t necessarily mean that we’re out of the woods or that the drought is over.”

Indeed, the message communicated to the citizens of California is not as dire as the one they were hearing last year, even though little has changed. When conservation awareness is not highly visible in the news, families tend to revert to normal (wasteful) practices. This August, Californians reduced their water use by 17.7 percent, which is a ten-point drop from the numbers at the same time last year.

Keep practicing water conservation in your household and let your family know California is still deep in a drought. Switch to drought-conscious landscaping, skip the weekly car wash, and cut plastic waste by using reusable stainless steel bottles filled with filtered water. Every step you take is one step closer to a drought-free state. For more ideas on how to save water, visit this post on water conservation tips.

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