New research shows that California's Sierra Nevada snowpack will likely not recover from the current drought until 2019

By Lauren Lipuma, Contributing Writer, EOS

Rain over California’s Owen’s Valley in early May 2016. The 2015–2016 El Niño, which officially ended in late May, was one of the strongest El Niños on record. Although predicted to bring heavy rainfall to California, new research shows El Niño’s rains were not enough to ease California’s ongoing drought. Credit: Dustin Blakey, CC BY-NC 2.0

Rain over California’s Owen’s Valley in early May 2016. The 2015–2016 El Niño, which officially ended in late May, was one of the strongest El Niños on record. Although predicted to bring heavy rainfall to California, new research shows El Niño’s rains were not enough to ease California’s ongoing drought. Credit: Dustin Blakey, CC BY-NC 2.0

The unprecedented drought that has gripped the Southwest United States has severely depleted the Sierra Nevada snowpack, the major source of water for drinking and farming in California. Researchers and water managers thought this past winter’s monster El Niño would bring enough rainfall to help ease the strain on water resources, but whether El Niño rains were enough to replenish the dwindling snowpack remained to be seen.

Here Margulis et al. used daily maps of the Sierra Nevada taken from NASA Landsat satellites and snow survey data collected by California’s Department of Water Resources to determine the snowpack’s current volume and predict how much water is available within it. The team also used the satellite images and historical measurements of the snowpack and of past El Niños to estimate the snowpack’s total volume for each year from 1951 to 2015.

This animation shows the change in snow water equivalent in the Sierra Nevada mountains from 1985 to 2015. New research shows even with this winter’s strong El Niño, the Sierra Nevada snowpack will likely take until 2019 to return to pre-drought levels. Credit: Steve Margulis/UCLA

This animation shows the change in snow water equivalent in the Sierra Nevada mountains from 1985 to 2015. New research shows even with this winter’s strong El Niño, the Sierra Nevada snowpack will likely take until 2019 to return to pre-drought levels. Credit: Steve Margulis/UCLA

The researchers found that this winter’s strong El Niño did not bring enough rain to replenish the snowpack’s depleted stores. In 2015, the water volume of the snowpack was just 2.9 cubic kilometers (0.7 cubic mile), whereas a typical year is about 18.6 cubic kilometers (4.46 cubic miles), according to the study. Accounting for the 4-year snowpack deficit from the 2012–2015 drought, the researchers conclude it will likely take until 2019 for the snowpack to return to predrought levels, even if there are above-average precipitation years.

The team suggest that their method, which provides unprecedented detail and precision, could be useful in characterizing snowpack water in other mountain ranges, including the Andes and the Himalayas. These areas currently have much less on-site monitoring than in the Sierra Nevada.

The larger goal of the research is to build a detailed, continuous picture of the historical snowpack and diagnose the primary factors that cause it to vary. This information can ultimately improve models for predicting how much water will be available from the snowpack in the future, which will inform water management decisions. (Geophysical Research Letters, doi:10.1002/2016GL068520, 2016)

 

The paper: Lipuma, L. (2016), Monster El Niño not enough to quench California drought, Eos, 97, doi:10.1029/2016EO055707. Published on 15 July 2016. http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/2016GL068520/full

Abstract

Analysis of the Sierra Nevada (USA) snowpack using a new spatially distributed snow reanalysis data set, in combination with longer term in situ data, indicates that water year 2015 was a truly extreme (dry) year. The range-wide peak snow volume was characterized by a return period of over 600 years (95% confidence interval between 100 and 4400 years) having a strong elevational gradient with a return period at lower elevations over an order of magnitude larger than those at higher elevations. The 2015 conditions, occurring on top of three previous drought years, led to an accumulated (multiyear) snowpack deficit of ~ −22 km3, the highest over the 65 years analyzed. Early estimates based on 1 April snow course data indicate that the snowpack drought deficit will not be overcome in 2016, despite historically strong El Niño conditions. Results based on a probabilistic Monte Carlo simulation show that recovery from the snowpack drought will likely take about 4 years.

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68 thoughts on “New research shows that California's Sierra Nevada snowpack will likely not recover from the current drought until 2019

  1. The California drought is not an “unprecedented drought”.
    Claiming that makes the rest of article basically boring and deceptive.

    • Thank you for reiterating that. It gets tiresome to read “unprecedented” so often regarding a drought that to date is nothing unusual.

    • And while we’re at it, Californians seem to have a self centric view of snow:

      whether El Niño rains were enough to replenish the dwindling snowpack

      And I thought rain was more likely to reduce snowpack (but sometime increase water content).

    • I have read that California spends about 400 out of every 500 years in drought and that they just finished their 100 years of good weather. So, their “climate” is returning to its normal state, dry. And their complaint would be . . .?

    • This is true. The difference between then and now is a small population that could migrate to find water, and a large population that wants to stay put. The reservoirs that were built in the 1930’s-60’s represented true progressive (progress) thinking. At the end of the 1960’s we had plenty of water for 18 million people, with capacity for some population increase. Not enough for 40-years later population doubling. The California Central Canal opened desert land to lush irrigated agriculture in the western Central Valley. I was there in 1971, taking soil samples of carrot and sugar beet fields, which needed 40-in rain equivalent in land that normally received 8 inches of rain.
      My friends and I caught striped bass in San Luis dam, a fish that was native to the east coast. Would it have been great if the canal replenished southern Sierra salmon and steelhead flows in the San Joaquin? I would rather have fished for them than bass, which weren’t nearly as tasty.
      The masses of urbanites on the coast can develop desalination facilities–the Pacific has unlimited amounts of water. The farmers can subsist on rainwater, stored and distributed. More reservoirs may be needed.

  2. water is weird…
    Not enough and it’s a drought…
    …too much and it’s a flood
    Measuring it is even weirder….No amount of floods ever seem to erase the deficit

    • In California, floods are usually caused by politicians over-riding the actual hydrologists on the available snow-pack water content and not letting them lower the reservoir levels appropriately just before the spring thaw. Then when the snow-pack melts in April, the hydrologists have to open the floodgates on the dams to prevent catastrophic failure, leading to sever downstream flooding in the valleys. This is also usually followed by too much water being let out of the reservoir and water restrictions by August.
      This has been a constant problem since at least the 70s and probably longer than that. Of course, then the Sierra Club gets involved and makes them keep river flows above what the river would have flowed at if the reservoirs did not exist and empties the reservoirs completely. Next they blame Climate Change for the empty reservoirs and the circle is complete. IT IS A PEOPLE PROBLEM, NOT A CLIMATE PROBLEM!

      • pretty much….
        I had to laugh at this…”Although predicted to bring heavy rainfall ”
        …why do people even pay attention to these clowns

      • Snowpack is only part of the story–rainfall is also important. Warm spring rains melted the snowpack more than usual, but added extra to the reservoirs. Shasta, the biggest reservoir in the state, is at 109% of the historical average and actually had to release water in the spring because the level was supposedly getting dangerously high for flood control. Lake Oroville, the second largest, is at 95% of the historical average. See the graphic for all the reservoirs at http://cdec.water.ca.gov/cdecapp/resapp/getResGraphsMain.action

      • Ralph is correct. I visited Lake Shasta two weeks ago and it’s looking great. However, last weekend I drove by San Luis which looks really sad.

      • Owen, as much as I would like to blame politicians for everything, sometimes there is really nothing to blame them for – through no fault of their own of course. The greatest historical floods in California took place in the 19th century. The largest historically recorded flood lead to the formation of the MIller-Lux ranch, one of the largest in the US (over-all the Miller-Lux company controlled some 22,000 square miles, though not all in the San Joaquin). Earlier, in the 1830s, the valley was flooded by what was probably an even larger event. The John Work party of the Hudson Bay Company found the entire lower Sacramento Valley flooded from north of the Sutter Buttes (Marysville Buttes to some of us natives) to the delta. In the vicinity of Sacramento the flooded area was over 26 miles wide. So, sometimes flooding is just flooding. The biggest floods in the 20th century were sometimes aggravated slightly due to political maneuvering. The reality is that when rain falls within a catchment, all that water either goes into the ground or down streams and away. Every stream has a finite, discharge cross-section and once the flows exceed the capacity of the gross-section it floods.
        I’ve read repeated assertions by second guessers from out of state that the cause of the flooding in 1986 for instance as “political.” These folks prefer to ignore the storm that provided the water. In Sacramento alone we received 10 inches of rain in 11 days. That is nearly 6.3 million acre feet on Sacramento alone. Folsom Dam can impound 1,120,000 acre·ft. At a rough estimate the run-off from El Dorado County alone would have filled Folsom several times over and a good chunlk of Placer County discharges through the American River as well, El Dorado County, with over seventeen-hundred square miles, – with the minor exception that drains into the Great Basin – all discharges via the American and Cosumnes rivers – and they both run through Sacramento County. Within Sacramento County, there are no dams that could receive that run off. The topography would require flood “control” dams that could put a major portion of the county under water at times.
        I was living here and watch the storm drains back up and the American River rise to within about three feet of the right-bank levee top. There was genuine concern for not one but two catastrophic failures. Folsom Dam was discharging full bore and was continuing to fill. If that dam went, Natomas down stream would as well. Sacramento would then have taken up residence in San Francisco Bay. I was living in Sacramento and relocated my family temporarily to higher ground. There is no way to control that level of run off that would not require rebuilding the county – and pretty much the entire upstream state – from the ground up, seizing property, relocating population and generally doing all kinds of centralized-state things no one in their right mind wants.
        There has been a lot of discussion about what “might have happened” if the Auburn Dam was built, but reality is that it would be very expensive, and it can’t be sited in a geologically safe area (that whole chunk of the foothills is lined with major and minor faults that are known, and no one will even guess how many are unknown). Unlike Folsom Dam which is footed in granite, Auburn Dam would be in metamorphic terrane of variable competency, riddled with old mines and ancient river beds, as well as the aforementioned known and unknown faults. The failure of the Auburn coffer dam – built at the start of the Auburn Dam project – highlighted the geological problem. Then too, the best estimates indicated that the Auburn Dam just would not offer the level of flood protection that had been initially bruted. Given the regional topography, it would have had to discharge at the same rate Folsom did, and then Folsom would have had to follow suit. The worst case scenario and, given the foothill geology quite a possible one, is that there could have been three dam failures more than doubling the volume of a failure discharge than if Folsom alone had failed. As it is we had none. The dam actually did its job.

      • Duster,
        Of course there is a great deal of variability, but I speak from the stories given me by a cousin who actually was one of those reservoir managers. Sure there are freaky, five-day rain storms that throw off the best laid plans of mice and men, but he related many stories of being ordered to do stupid things counter to the long term health of the reservoir. Every couple of weeks in the snow season he would take a trip up the mountain catchment area to take snow samples to measure the water content and depth of the snow pack so he could have a good ballpark estimate of the water he would get in the spring thaw. He always had to fight to let that water downstream to make room.
        That said, he also stated that California needed to triple the reservoir capacity to meet its population and agricultural water needs. That of course never happened. I haven’t seen him since the 80’s, but I can’t imagine anything has changed for the better.

      • Owen, that was a 11-day storm. And they really aren’t all that freaky. I do agree that there’s a lot of political interference, and worse, the interference pulls in both directions. Make no mistake. You have interests like wealthy delta farming interests who spend every spring worrying as the rivers rise. They want the reservoirs ready to accept the spring snow melt and protect them from levee failures. At the other end are the urbanites, especially in So Cal, who want electricity and water for their pools and are sure that if the worry warts up north would just keep the water in the reservoirs where belongs, they would not suffer from brown outs or brown lawns in L.A. But, the interference simply does not have the impact that we would like to blame it for. Storms like that are not all that unsual. It is one reason that the Army Corps changed the flood likelihood estimates here in the Golden State. In the ’80s and ’90s we had two events that should have been separated by decades if not a century or two. Of course, the Corps actually underestimated the actual scale of the run-off generated by a major storm. As regards the amount of reservoir storage we need, what we really need is for a lot folks to go back home, wherever that is and make a living there.
        The present governor’s father had a study done because of droughts back in the ’50s which I recall because they followed right on the hem of a flood that almost reached the house I lived in; the water stopped rising about 300 feet away. My parents were pretty nervous, but as kids we liked “watching the flood.” That study was completed IIRC in the late ’60s. The fact that the first Governor Brown was more concerned about drought than floods says a great deal about his politics. The study used dendrochronology, legitimately, to estimate rainfall. It covered the southwest including Nevada and Arizona as well as California. As far as I know it was the first study to identify real droughts by California standards – droughts that last on the order of century and Sierran snow packs effectively vanish altogether. One of the conclusions of that study was that we could essentially dam every stream in the state and not impound enough water to get through a drought of that scale, not for the then population of the state. Now it would be even more of a problem. That study has been buried so thoroughly I can no longer find even a record of it. Unfortunately I lent the only copy I had to someone who promptly moved out of state and never returned it.

  3. This is not original, but is interesting:
    Nino3.4 Index leads UAHLT (Lower Troposphere) global temperature (and +/-20degreesN-S Precipitable Water – see second plot) by ~four months.
    The Nino3.4 area, which is about 1% of the global surface area, apparently drives (or at least predicts) global temperature.
    The relationship changes due to major volcanoes in 1982 and 1991, where up to 0.7C of global cooling occurred and then abated.
    In the first plot, UAHLT is lagged by 4 months (after UAHLTcalc. from Nino3.4 Index) to show the strong correlation.
    https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=1041547122589516&set=pcb.1041548565922705&type=3&theater
    From 1996 onwards after the effect of the volcanoes had abated, R2 = 0.55 between UAHLTactual and UAHLTcalc. from Nino3.4 Index
    and R2 = 0.46 between UAHLTactual and Scaled Precipitable Water (+/-20 degrees N, 0-360 degrees W).
    https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=1041547895922772&set=pcb.1041548565922705&type=3&theater
    https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=1041548175922744&set=pcb.1041548565922705&type=3&theater
    https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=1041548405922721&set=pcb.1041548565922705&type=3&theater

  4. “The unprecedented drought that has gripped the Southwest United States…”
    No, the recent drought is mild compared to history.
    “BEGINNING about 1,100 years ago, what is now California baked in two droughts, the first lasting 220 years and the second 140 years. Each was much more intense than the mere six-year dry spells that afflict modern California from time to time, new studies of past climates show. The findings suggest, in fact, that relatively wet periods like the 20th century have been the exception rather than the rule in California for at least the last 3,500 years, and that mega-droughts are likely to recur.”
    http://www.nytimes.com/1994/07/19/science/severe-ancient-droughts-a-warning-to-california.html?pagewanted=all

  5. Now that water has become politicized in California. its scarcity will never end. I live at the 2500 ft. elevation of the Sierra Nevada, an hours drive from Donner Summit. What the “experts” fail to mention is there are huge aquifers in the rock formations that make up the Sierra. Those aquifers are what keep hundreds of springs charged even during drought years
    sierr

    • Sierras are granite plutons. Any aquifers are going to be small. The soil on that granite basement is shallow. Year round springs probably sourced to snow pack.

  6. Have I not read, I believe on this very website, that California’s water shortage could have been drastically ameliorated by simply avoiding measures taken to combat CAGW and save certain small and insignificant wild species? It is, in large part, in other words, their own fault. The precipitation, scant though it has been, would have been sufficient if the creek and river flows had been harnessed to the citizens’ benefit, rather than running out to sea, or wherever they went.

  7. Much of southern California is historically an arid climate… you know, deserts??? Death Valley??? The current drought is not a reflection of a lack of precipitation, it is a reflection of 40 million people needing water pumped into an arid climate from somewhere else in order to survive. To use the drought as an argument supporting “man-made climate change” is nonsense.

    • Yes and no infrastructure being built in the last 30 years to accommodate them because the critters.

  8. No surprise. Large weather patterns (versus day to day wait 10 minutes) are indeed random in the short and medium term, but it is a random “walk”, not a random leap. It takes a while to walk to another place in weather pattern variations. Are there climate scientists who are surprised by this? Then I would question their meteorology acumen.

  9. Why did anyone expect the recent 5 year long drought to be alleviated with a single winter’s El Nino precipitation? The study is telling us what common sense already has: it will take several years of winter storms to rebuild the snowpack and refill the lakes and reservoirs in CA.

    • The snowpack disappears almost completely every year. It can be replenished in a single winter. The drought is a different story. The study does not have enough common sense to distinguish between snowpack and drought.

  10. The team suggest that their method, which provides unprecedented detail and precision, could be useful in characterizing snowpack water in other mountain ranges, including the Andes and the Himalayas. These areas currently have much less on-site monitoring than in the Sierra Nevada.

    ie, ‘Please fund our world tour vacation’

  11. “this past winter’s monster El Niño ”
    A 100-year flood is a monster event. NOAA says that the 2015-16 El Nino was roughly similar to the two largest ones on record since 1950. Calling this a “monster” — or, even worse, a “Godzilla” event (he destroys cities) — is exaggeration that can only erode scientists’ credibility with the public.
    Sad.

    • Scientists still have credibility with the public? Around here people treat the words ‘scientists report’ the same way the treat the words ‘politicians say’.

  12. I hike to and ski Sierra snow fields all summer long and have been doing so for decades. Last year was the first time ever that the patch I usually ski disappeared, although the main reason was significant monsoon rains coming up the spine of the Sierras. It’s usually a desert from June to Oct except the odd T’storm. I was up there 2 weeks ago and the snow on the ground is not at 2011 levels (> 2x normal), but definitely more than there has been at this of year since then. Based on the existing snow pack pack, I expect to be able to ski my patch through October. If you go to Google maps, search for Levitt Lake and look carefully, you may be able to see my tracks on one of the nearby patches of snow just East of the Pacific Crest Trail.

  13. “the researchers conclude it will likely take until 2019 for the snowpack to return to predrought levels, even if there are above-average precipitation years.”
    Does the Sierra Nevada snowpack normally last over the summer? If so it is a glacier not a snowpack. If it does not, how does the size of the snowpack of one year influence the size of the snowpack next year?
    I presume they mean that it will take several years to refill dams and recharge groundwater, but that’s not snowpack.

  14. There’s gotta be some good news involved in this study….
    Oh, there it is:
    “The larger goal of the research is to build a detailed, continuous picture of the historical snowpack and diagnose the primary factors that cause it to vary.”
    =======
    It’s all for a good cause, it keeps the grad students off the street and the grants coming in.

    • Unfortunately, all of these grants don’t come close to covering the pensions already promised to thousands of state workers. CalPERS is now $140 billion in the hole and it’s getting deeper real fast.
      No amount of rain will fill THAT reservoir. It’s gonna take gobs and gobs more of our money.

  15. Help! If we have satellite data which can characterize sea level changes to within +/-0.1 mm/ yr why are they using images to characterize snow pack volume? I’ll bet the snowpack has a lower tidal range and lower average wave height than the Southern oceans.

  16. Once again I bring up the places where they should have built dams if they wanted rainfall to fill them. The northwest corner of CA doesn’t have any large dams or reservoirs. California actually has over a thousand dams:
    http://www.kqed.org/news/science/climatewatch/waterandpower/map.jsp
    Here is the average precipitation for CA. The northwest section has a large area which averages over 100 inches of rainfall per year. Where are the reservoirs?
    http://www.eldoradocountyweather.com/californiaannualprecip.html
    I assume they don’t want to flood the redwoods…

    • J.P.,
      There is only one river in the northwest corner of California, the Smith River. Leave it alone. It is small, undammed and beautiful. The stupidity of building a dam there defies imagination. Virtually no one lives there, the people who need the water are 200-500 miles away, and the logistics of moving the water you could capture is stupefying to consider.
      Los Angeles and all the surrounding area have more than enough water right on their doorstep. It’s call Santa Monica Bay…which is connected to the Pacific Ocean…which is connected to every other ocean on the planet. The water is there. They just need to take the salt out of it. Nuclear power, desalination, unlimited water. What could be better.
      pbh

  17. There was no “monster El Nino”. It didn’t happen. Anyone who tells you it did is disconnected from reality.
    I’ve lived in the Santa Cruz mountains of California on both sides (in and out of the rain shadow) since 1965. We had significant rain in 1982, 1986, a goodly amount in 1990 then again in 1998. This century 2007 was big. It’s been pretty dry since then.
    They’re sticking to a false correlation; El Nino may usually bring heavy rain, but not always.

  18. “Primary water” is newly produced by chemical processes within the earth & has never been part of the surface hydrological cycle. Created when conditions are right to allow oxygen to combine with hydrogen, this water is continually being pushed up under great pressure from deep within the earth and finds its way toward the surface where there are fissures or faults. Japanese researchers reported in Science in March 2002 that the earth’s lower mantle may store about five times more water than its surface oceans.
    Pal Pauer of the Primary Water Institute, one of the world’s leading experts in tapping primary water, says a well sufficient to service an entire community could be dug and generating great volumes of water in a mere two or three days, at a cost of about $100,000. The entire state of California could be serviced for about $800 million.
    http://www.primarywaterinstitute.org/evidence.html

    • Primary water is produced by a reaction of iron from the Earth’s core with silicates in the mantle. /sarc

  19. Hey, if it didn’t happen in my lifetime, it is unprecedented. Or worse, I left school without learning critical thinking.

  20. Suggested their method could be used for other mountain ranges……
    Cue….we need more grant (travel) money and we’re going to bring our skis and snowboards with us listed as “scientific equipment”.
    While I find the animation and the data driving it interesting the wording is preposterous. This is the central problem of climate science sticking their fingers in everyone’s pie. Good science backed by good data sold to the highest political bid for doom and gloom and to emphasize how evil humans plague the Earth. And bad science with biased data getting more money to keep the machine running. So was this good science or bad? Could looking and tracking the snow pack from a few years out of tens of thousands possibly predict the future of people living in California being able to shower everyday? Or can tracking and animating the snow pack be used as what it really is? Observational data.
    It is the climate science Magic 8 ball all over again. Politicians shake it and depending on how much they paid, they get to shake until they get the answer they want.
    If this study is going to be used, it will be used to squeeze more money in the form of a “drought” tax. That is my prediction and I didn’t even have to uncover my crustal ball. Can I collect my money now? LOL

  21. Here Margulis et al. used daily maps … and snow survey data … the satellite images and historical measurements … and of past El Niños to estimate the snowpack’s total volume for each year from 1951 to 2015.
    I count 4 metrics being used to measure the same thing. Lacking a reliable cross-calibration, I can only recall my father’s dictum: “A man with two watches can never be sure what time it is.” I cannot imagine the folly of using FOUR.

  22. And in anticipation of future droughts causing more water shortages due to a climbing California population over the past 40 years what did California do to prepare? Build more reservoirs? Slow or stop the release of water from current reservoirs? No and no.

  23. Well, the snowpack could be less due to rain at lower altitudes too. That would not be bad for the drought, as the water would still enter the water tables, the reservoirs etc etc.
    It’s very dangerous to take one simple measurable and equate it with a far more global one like ‘California’s drought’.
    To do that you need a measurement of total cubic gallons of water flowing into the State’s water supply system, a measurement of losses due to evaporation, an indication of water entering subsoil and groundwater etc.
    This to me comes across as ‘use of technology in search of a problem’……..

  24. In the history of the republic until 2007, we knocked down just under 600 damns. Since then we have destroyed just under 600. Thanks to enviro-cranks and lovers of wild rivers and snail darter minnows. When drought, rather dry years, came the Californians wished they had 600 reservoirs of water but it had been flushed to the sea,

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