I last reported on the snowpack and reservoirs in California and the Colorado River Basin at the end of January. At that time, the snowpack had gotten off to a slow start. Boy, did things change!
Most of the western USA has a monsoonal precipitation pattern: most of the rain falls during the winter, and from about March through the end of November, there usually isn’t much precipitation. For that reason, the entire region depends on stored water, either in reservoirs, or perhaps even more importantly, in the snowpack that builds up on the mountains. Because I have family in California, and because the long-term predictions for the water supply in the West have been grim, I have been following the status of the snowpack and the reservoirs in California and the Colorado River Basin. The most important measurement for the snowpack is usually around April 1, while maximum levels on the reservoirs typically occur some weeks later, as the snowpack melts. For instance, Lake Powell, the uppermost very large reservoir on the Colorado River, reaches its highest monthly average in July. Lake Shasta, the largest reservoir in California, reaches its highest average level in May.
Figure 1 shows the snow water content of the snowpack in California. (The snow water content represents how much water there would be if you melted the snow in a given location. For instance, if you melted 7 inches of snow, it might only represent 1 inch of water.) The 3 charts represent the 3 major snowpack regions of California. The dark blue line is for 2019, while the light blue area represents average. The units along the y-axis represent percent of the April 1 average.
You can see that 2019 had an above average snowpack, maxing out at more than 150% of average in all 3 regions. By this time of year, the snowpack has largely melted. Notice the text at the bottom right: “Statewide Percent of Average for Date: 71%.” Despite having a snowpack that maxed out at 150% of average, the amount of snowpack remaining on this date is less than average. This illustrates another way that climate change is affecting California: temperatures are up, and the snowpack is melting more rapidly than in the past.
I use Mammoth Mountain to illustrate snowfall amounts; it is located in the middle-south of the Sierra Nevada Mountains, south of Yosemite. Their website indicates that they are still open with 15” at the main lodge and 55” at the summit – on July 4th! Figure 2 shows snowfall at Mammoth Mountain by year and month. Paralleling the snowpack survey, this chart shows that 2019 was well above average at Mammoth, but not a record. There was one month with a lot of snow: February.
As a result, California’s reservoirs are all above average for this date, as shown in Figure 3. Even lake Oroville, which had to be mostly emptied when the dam eroded, threatening catastrophic failure, is nearing capacity. Every single reservoir is above average, and only one is not near capacity.
Many western states, including Southern California, are heavily dependent on water from the Colorado River. Lake Mead is the largest reservoir, and it is capable of holding more water than any other in the USA. For a couple of decades, there has been concern that water demands on the Colorado River had increased, and water supply into it had decreased, to the point that Lake Mead would be drained within a couple of decades. Over the last 5 years, water levels were so low that they flirted with the mandatory cut-back level: states would have lost a significant portion of their water.
Figure 4 shows that snowpack in the Upper Colorado River Basin was higher than average in 2019, and this represents the 2nd time in the last 3 years. This snow melts into a number of reservoirs along the tributaries of the Colorado River, and then into Lake Powell, the first of the gigantic reservoirs along the Lower Colorado River Basin. From Lake Powell, it is released into Lake Mead. Figure 5 shows that Lake Mead is up from its record low a few years ago, but it is still historically very low.
The bottom line here is that the draught has finally broken in California, and that state is sitting on plenty of water for now. This was to be expected – nobody ever thought that California’s water supply problem would be a straight line from full to empty. The regions history, however, indicates that draught is a normal occurance for the state, and in recent years, wet periods have not lasted too long. The whole point of reservoirs is that they get drawn down during dry periods. So long as they get refilled before they are empty, the system is working just like it should. Three things can break the system, though: first, if water demand increases too much, and there just isn’t enough water to satisfy the demand. California is getting close to outstripping supply, as is all of the West. Second, wet years could get less wet, and then they might not be sufficient to refill the reservoirs. This year was sufficient to refill the California reservoirs, but Lake Mead still has a long way to go! And finally, if too many years go by before a wet one comes along, then the reservoirs could get sucked dry. California was getting close, and Santa Barbara, in particular, got really, really close.
The long term projection is still guarded, as population continues to enter western states and climate change continues to threaten the snowpack. How it will unfold year-by-year is anybody’s guess, but for now, things are better than they were a couple of years ago.
California Department of Water Resources. 2019a. Current Reservoir Conditions. Downloaded 7/4/2019 from http://cdec.water.ca.gov/reportapp/javareports?name=rescond.pdf.
California Department of Water Resources. 2019b. California Snow Water Content, July 1, 2019, Percent of April Average. Downloaded 7/4/2019 from http://cdec.water.ca.gov/reportapp/javareports?name=PLOT_SWC.pdf.
Mammoth Mountain Ski Area. 2019. Extended Snow Report. Downloaded 7/4/2019 from https://www.mammothmountain.com/winter/mountain-information/mountain-information.