Early Winter Storms Produce Sierra Snow, But Water Content Remains Below Average


January 2019 snow survey

DWR staff conduct the first snow survey of 2019 at Phillips Station.

SACRAMENTO, Calif. – Today, the Department of Water Resources (DWR) conducted the first Phillips Station snow survey of 2019. The manual survey recorded 25.5 inches of snow depth and a snow water equivalent of 9 inches, which is 80 percent of average for this location. Statewide, the Sierra snowpack is 67 percent of average. The results confirm that despite early winter storms, Sierra water content is below average for this time of year.

“The last few years have shown how variable California’s climate truly is and what a profound impact climate change has on our water resources,” said DWR Director Karla Nemeth. “California’s significant weather variability means we can go from historic drought to record rainfall, with nothing in between. Climate change will continue to exacerbate the extremes, creating additional challenges for maintaining water supply reliability and the need for innovative solutions.”

Climate change has also shifted the balance of rain and snow, with rain falling at higher elevations than in the past. DWR’s manual snow surveys, combined with our electronic snow sensors and emerging technology, enable successful runoff forecasts and water resource management.

“About two-thirds of California’s annual rainfall occurs December through March. Total precipitation so far this water year, which began October 1, has been below average,” said DWR State Climatologist Michael Anderson. “We still have three wet season months ahead of us, so there’s time for the snowpack to build and improve before it begins to melt, which usually starts happening around April 1.”

On average, the snowpack supplies about 30 percent of California’s water needs as it melts in the spring and early summer. The greater the snowpack water content, the greater the likelihood California’s reservoirs will receive ample runoff as the snowpack melts to meet the state’s water demand in the summer and fall.

DWR has conducted manual snow surveys at Phillips Station since 1964, recording both depth and snow water equivalent. Snow water equivalent is the depth of water that theoretically would result if the entire snowpack melted instantaneously. That measurement allows for a more accurate forecast of spring runoff.

DWR conducts five snow surveys each winter – near the first of January, February, March, April and May – at Phillips Station in the Sierra Nevada just off Highway 50 near Sierra-at-Tahoe. The Phillips snow course is one of hundreds that will be surveyed manually throughout the winter. Manual measurements augment the electronic readings from about 100 snow pillows in the Sierra Nevada that provide a current snapshot of the water content in the snowpack.


Additional Resources:

Video of today’s Phillips survey (Expected between 2-3 p.m.)

Digital photos of today’s Phillips survey (Expected between 2-3 p.m.)

Snowpack readings (View readings for current regional snowpack and historical snowpack comparison)

CDEC precipitation data (View current charts for the Northern Sierra 8-station index for updated rainfall readings in the critical northern portion of the state, as well as the San Joaquin 5-station index and Tulare Basin 6-station index.)


Chris Orrock, Information Officer, Public Affairs, Department of Water Resources
916-651-7012 | Chris.Orrock@water.ca.gov