'It's a Start': First Winter Measurement Shows California Snowpack Higher Than Normal | NBC Southern California

Coverage of one of California's most severe dry spells on record and its dramatic turnaround

'It's a Start': First Winter Measurement Shows California Snowpack Higher Than Normal

The Sierra Nevada snowpack melts in the spring and flows into California's reservoirs, depleted after four years of drought.

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    NEWSLETTERS

    The water content of the statewide snowpack in drought-stricken California was 105 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 survey showed the snowpack was 136 percent of normal at the particular site of measurement. It follows an electronic measurement last week that put the water content of the snowpack at 112 percent of normal for this time of year. More snow has fallen since then, bringing the level on Tuesday to nearly 120 percent in the Central Sierra, which includes Lake Tahoe, according to the California Department of Water Resources.

    Still, state water managers say it's too early to declare an end to four years of punishing drought. They say they'll feel more confident if the April 1 snowpack is 150 percent of normal and depleted reservoirs reach normal levels.

    But Wednesday's measurement is encouraging.

    "It's a start," said Frank Gehrke, chief of the California Cooperative Snow Surveys Program for the Department of Water Resources.

    Gehrke took the reading by plunging a measuring pole into a thick field of snow in the Central Sierra, which includes Lake Tahoe. Wednesday's snow survey was at Phillips Station off Highway 50, about 90 miles east of Sacramento.

    The site is one of dozens that will be measured over 10 days.

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

    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, when the snowpack generally peaks, it hit a record low of 5 percent.

    Last winter's readings were disappointing, due in part to a warm season when the average minimum temperature in the Sierra Nevada was 32.1 degrees. It marked the first time the average minimum temperature was higher than water's freezing point since the state began keeping records.

    As of last week, nearly 45 percent of California was under exceptional drought, the most severe drought category listed by the U.S. Drought Monitor. That figure has improved from 32 percent at the start of 2015.

    About 97 percent of the state remains under some type of drought, according to the Monitor, which will publish an updated report Thursday.

    An El Nino 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 Ninos 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 say a light to moderate storm system is expected in Northern California early next week.

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