California Snowpack Hits All-Time Low, 8 Percent Of Average

In this Jan. 28, 2015 photo chairs on a ski lift overlooking Donner Lake, sit idle at Donner Ski Ranch in Norden, CA. CREDIT: AP/ RICH PEDRONCELLI
In this Jan. 28, 2015 photo chairs on a ski lift overlooking Donner Lake, sit idle at Donner Ski Ranch in Norden, CA. CREDIT: AP/ RICH PEDRONCELLI

The rainy season is over in California before it ever really began.

As the state enters its fourth year of a prolonged and devastating drought, new snowpack estimates give Californians little to aspire to other than more hot and dry conditions. According to the Department of Water Resources, the Sierra Nevada snowpack is lower than any year since 1950, and at the end of March it is just 8 percent of the historical average.

This year’s paltry snowpack is less than one-third of the previous smallest size on record, which was 25 percent of average — an amount that was reached both last year and in 1977.

Winter is normally California’s rainy season, but the state has been parched since several big storms swept through late last year. And that looks like it’s going to continue — state climatologist Michael Anderson told the The Fresno Bee that there is “no significant precipitation in sight.”

“I think we’re done,” he said. “I see heat and more heat in the coming months.”

The impacts of the ongoing drought — which studies have shown is exacerbated by climate change — are being seen in everything from energy production to the survival of critical species like the Delta smelt.


According to a new report from the Pacific Institute, the ongoing drought is causing California to rely on natural gas to replace unavailable hydroelectricity power sources. The report states that the switch has cost California ratepayers $1.4 billion more for electricity than in average years, and has resulted in an 8 percent increase in carbon dioxide and other pollutants between 2011 and 2014.

With the first three months 2015 offering little respite from the drought, California Gov. Jerry Brown recently signed an expansive $1.1 billion emergency drought relief bill, the second such effort in as many years.


Snowpack usually provides about one third of California’s annual water use and 60 percent of the water that is captured in the state’s vast reservoir system. When snowpack was around one-quarter of average in 2014, it was expected to account for more like one-twentieth of that demand. Allocating the limited snow runoff this year to the many interested parties will be just as painful.

Marty Ralph, a research meteorologist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, told NBC News that “without that snowpack, it’s really hard for the reservoirs and water supply to be available during the very dry part of the summer.”

Those that rely on the snowpack for recreational reasons have also been dismayed by this season’s failure to deliver.

“This has been what I’m now calling the ‘cruellest’ [sic] winter I’ve ever seen,” wrote Tim Cohee, CEO of Central California’s China Peak Ski resort, in a Facebook post in mid-February when the resort was forced to close. “We have not only dealt with no snow, but also with incredibly marginal snowmaking conditions … In nearly four decades I have never worked for a resort that closed mid-winter; now I have.”