Jan. 6 2020 07:33 AM

The snow alleviates drought fears — for now.

Thanks to a healthy snowpack, Southern California is going into 2020 with plenty of fresh water to supply its farms and urban areas, according to an article in the San Gabriel Valley Tribune.

Southern California water managers are reportedly ecstatic over Sierra Nevada snowpack levels that have been measured at 90% of normal — the highest total in early January in four years, when it came in at 101% on Jan. 2, 2016. Contrast this with Jan. 2 of last year, when the statewide snowpack was just 69% of normal.

Officials from the state Department of Water Resources conducted their first Sierra Nevada snowpack survey of the season at Phillips Station along Highway 50 near the Sierra-at-Tahoe ski resort in El Dorado County. Readings taken at that site date back to 1941.

At that location, the snow was 33 inches deep, and its water content, 97% of the historical average for early January.

Sierra snowfall is critical to California’s water supply. The 400-mile mountain range supplies one-third of the water needed by the state’s cities and farms. As it slowly melts during the spring and summer months, it sends billions of gallons of clean, fresh water into rivers, streams and reservoirs.

It’s also vital for the state’s ski industry, which suffered significantly during the 2012-16 drought. Although that drought was ended by the wet winter of 2016-17, water officials still nervously monitor weather patterns for signs of another drought.

The spring melt will send cascades of water flowing into the state’s reservoirs as well as the State Water Project aqueduct that supplies 30% of the drinking water in the southern part of the state.

Local ground water managers will take a portion of that bounty to restore over-pumped basins that are still low from the five-year drought that ended in 2016, according to the story. The Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, the largest wholesaler of water in the nation, reports that it will be there to facilitate that water transfer as long as member agencies can pay for the purchases.

“We are going into this year with 3.1 million acre-feet of storage — water in the bank,” Demetri Polyzos, MWD resource planning team manager says in the article. “That is the highest storage level we’ve ever had,” One acre-foot equals 326,000 gallons, approximately what a Southern California family uses in a year.

The MWD cannot receive any more water at its Diamond Valley Lake Reservoir in Hemet; as of Jan. 2, it is 98% full. The District instead plans to divert that water to basins in Los Angeles, San Bernardino, Orange and Riverside counties that have extra storage capacity.

“It’s a good start,” Chris Orrock, a spokesman for the state Department of Water Resources, told the reporter. “It’s better than it was last year. But it’s still early. We’re cautiously optimistic.”

State water officials said reservoir levels registered in the teens during the drought. But the last two years of snow and rain radically changed the picture. “Our reservoir levels are good right now; the majority are at or above historic averages,” Orrock said.

The precipitation of last year helped the Chino Basin add water from September through December of 2019, General Manager Peter Kavounas saying in the article. “And when you have more snowpack up north, we’ll have more water to import. It helps us better manage our groundwater basin.”

State water officials warn that climate change is expected to shrink the Sierra snowpack in the coming decades.

Orrock says in the story that the long-term forecast for California calls for drier conditions in the coming weeks. “We still need to see how the rest of the rainy season plays out. We may not get a significant storm the rest of this year.”