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Environment

California Snowpack At 136 Percent Of Normal For This Time Of Year

Frank Gehrke, right, chief of the California Cooperative Snow Surveys Program for the Department of Water Resources, checks the snowpack depth as he conducts the first manual snow survey of the season at Phillips Station near Echo Summit, Dec. 30, 2015. At left is Frank Anderson, a hydrologist with the U.S. Geographical Survey, and John King, of the Department of Water Resources.
Associated Press
Frank Gehrke, right, chief of the California Cooperative Snow Surveys Program for the Department of Water Resources, checks the snowpack depth as he conducts the first manual snow survey of the season at Phillips Station near Echo Summit, Dec. 30, 2015. At left is Frank Anderson, a hydrologist with the U.S. Geographical Survey, and John King, of the Department of Water Resources.

The water content of the Sierra Nevada snowpack in drought-stricken California was 136 percent of normal Wednesday when officials took the winter's first manual survey — an encouraging result after nearly no snow was found at the site in April.

The latest snow level is a good sign, "but that's it — it's a start," said Frank Gehrke, chief of the California Cooperative Snow Surveys Program for the Department of Water Resources.

After four years of drought, Gehrke plunged a measuring pole into a thick field of snow in the Central Sierra, which includes Lake Tahoe. His survey followed an electronic measurement last week that put the water content of the snowpack at 112 percent of normal. Even more snow has fallen since then.

The snowpack provides about 30 percent of California's water supply during the months when it melts and rushes through rivers and streams to fill reservoirs that remain critically low.

Last Jan. 1, the snowpack was a meager 45 percent of the historical average. On April 1, it had dropped to a record low of 5 percent.

Gehrke said snow must continue falling through April for him to feel confident the drought is easing.

"There's going to be those anxious moments when we start to get into a week, a week-and-a-half with no snow," he said.

KPBS's Drought Tracker measures the state's snowpack and rainfall as a percentage of what has typically accumulated by the end of the rainy season. It shows how far the state has to go for a healthy snowpack, rather than a point-in-time comparison like Wednesday's measurement.

Echoing Gehrke's reserve, Scripps Institution of Oceanography climate researcher David Pierce told KPBS earlier this week the current conditions are relatively normal.

"We're hoping for a real bumper year of high water totals, with lots of snow and lots of precipitation," Pierce said. "That hasn't really happened so far, but at least it's been normal. That's a lot better than we've had in previous years."

A brewing El Niño system — a warming in the Pacific Ocean that alters weather worldwide — is expected to impact California and the rest of the nation in the coming months, according to a NASA report released Tuesday.

Its effects on California's drought are hard to predict, but Jet Propulsion Laboratory climatologist Bill Patzert said it should bring some relief. El Niños in the early 1980s and late 1990s brought about twice as much rain as normal, he said.

The weather also caused mudslides, flooding and high surf in Southern California.

"The water story for much of the American West over most of the past decade has been dominated by punishing drought," Patzert said. "Now, we're preparing to see the flip-side of nature's water cycle — the arrival of steady, heavy rains and snowfall."

Forecasters expect a light to moderate storm system in Northern California early next week.