California snowpack improves as new blizzard barrels in

After a dry start to the West Coast winter, California snowpack levels showed considerable improvement Thursday, just as a multi-foot blizzard was about to barge into the Sierra Nevada region.

Measurements conducted live at Phillips Station, just south of Lake Tahoe, revealed a snowpack depth of 47.5 inches, with a snow-water equivalent — the amount of water contained in snowpack — of 18 inches.

While this reading constitutes just 77 percent of the site’s average for March 1, it marks a significant jump since Feb. 1, when Philips Station snowpack was only 58 percent of the average for that date.

“Today’s results are more promising than the first survey here two months ago, when we saw the tufts of grass sticking out through the snow,” Andy Reising, a water resources engineer at the California Department of Water Resources, said at a press conference that followed the survey.

Snow was already falling as Reising and his colleagues measured snowpack levels on screen as part of the agency’s third snow survey for the season.

As opposed to Thursday’s 18 inches of snow-water equivalent, the readings for Feb. 1 and Jan. 1 were about 10 inches and 3 inches, respectively, Reising noted.

When accounting for automated snow sensor measurements conducted across California, he said that statewide snowpack is now at 80 percent of the average for this date.

At the same time, however, current snowpack measurements are just 70 percent of the average for April 1 — the date that hydrologists consider the peak time for snow accumulation.

“The snowpack is one of California’s main sources of water, supplying millions of Californians with water from late spring through the fall,” Reising said.

His colleague Angelique Fabbiani-Leon, California’s state hydrometeorologist, echoed these sentiments, noting just how critical the next month will be in terms of building up the water for the next year.

“Our snowpack is still only at 80 percent of average for the state,” Fabbiani-Leon said. “This lack of snow can ultimately impact how much runoff continues to help fill our reservoirs, especially during the spring and summer months.”

With that in mind, however, both she and Reising expressed some optimism regarding a massive amount of snowfall expected to blanket the region over the coming days.

“The good news is that we have a big storm starting here through the weekend, and it will be a cold one — our first big cold storm of the year, and it will be a good snow producer,” Reising said. “It will be producing snow both at low elevations and high elevations.”

Daniel Swain, a climate scientist at the University of California, Los Angeles, shared a similar perspective at a separate Thursday webinar, where he said conditions are “going to change dramatically over the next 48 hours.”

He anticipated “meaningful accumulations” of snow “even at elevations that have struggled so far this season,” including 3 feet to 4 feet in the Tahoe Basin at below lake-level.

“And that’s not on the mountain peaks,” Swain continued. “In the mountain peaks, it’s going to be more like 5 to 10 feet — not inches, but 5 to 10 feet of snow.”

Warning against traveling to the mountains, he said that these areas will likely endure “true blizzard conditions” — meaning sustained and heavy winds coupled with copious snowfall for hours.

“The official language is just don’t try it,” he said, referring to both driving and skiing in the area.

Despite the slow start to the season, he predicted that this snowstorm will likely be one “for the record books” in certain locations.

“When all is said and done, it’s quite likely that Sierra snowpack will be significantly above average, just about everywhere, in as little as a week or so,” Swain added.

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