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Jaclyn Whittal takes a closer look at the near-record Western snowpack and upcoming storms.

California snowpack on track for record-setting year

Caroline Floyd

Thursday, March 2, 2017, 11:13 - With just a month to go until Winter 2016-17 is declared a success or failure, water-wise, evidence is mounting that the state's snowpack is headed for the record books.

Wednesday's first-of-the-month measurements showed the average snowpack statewide has climbed to a massive 185 percent of average for March 1; the result of one of the wettest winters on record in California.

The Department of Water Resources (DWR) takes both manual and electronic readings of the snowpack from hundreds of locations along the Sierra Nevada - the starting point for roughly 30 percent of the state's water supply. The April 1st measurement is generally the 'golden standard' - the indicator by which agencies judge how much water the state can expect to see from spring and summer snowmelt, and by extension, how much will make its way into reservoirs and surface water sources to supply Californians for the rest of the year.

And, this year, things are looking up.

In a release issued Wednesday, Frank Gehrke of the California Cooperative Snow Surveys Program called this year's snowpack "phenomenal." "Most of the snow courses are well over their April 1 accumulations," Gehrke said, adding that central and southern regions in the Sierra Nevada are tracking close to 1983, which holds the current record for statewide snowpack.

Image courtesy California Dept. of Water Resources

What makes this year's snowfall more remarkable is that it follows 5 years extreme snowfall deficit; in 2015 the state hit a record low mountain snowpack of only 5 percent of average. Some of the driest years on record were 2012 to 2014. Conversely, the 2017 'water year' - recorded as October 1, 2016 to September 30, 2017 - is already the wettest year on record in some watersheds in central California, and on the way to hitting the mark in others.

Image courtesy California Dept. of Water Resources.

The staggering snowfall comes courtesy of a tremendously active rainy season that, in addition to taking a significant bite out of the state's ongoing drought, has been blamed for close to $1 billion in damages caused by things like flooding, mudslides, and high surf.

While the amount of snow is a welcome sight at the higher elevations, it raises concerns about what will happen during the melt. "If we get a warm rain this spring, we're going to be flooded," Tehama mayor Robert Mitchell told the LA Times.

California governor Jerry Brown has said he will re-evaluate the drought and statewide conservation rules once the April data is received.

The DWR says groundwater - an integral part of the state's water supply, and one which has been heavily depleted during the drought - will take "much more than even an historically wet water year to be replenished in many areas."

Sources: California Department of Water Resources | LA Times | SF Gate |

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