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Water-Strapped California Is All Out of Snow

​The snow that provides about 30 percent of California’s water didn’t fall this winter.

by Kaleigh Rogers
Mar 18 2015, 2:00pm

​Image: ​Lind​a Tanner/Flickr

​The snow that provides about 30 percent of California's water didn't fall this winter, which is really bad news as the state faces a likely fourth year of drought. In response, California's water board has unanimously voted to adopt stricter conservation measures.

The spring runoff from melting snow is "critically important" to California's water supply, according to Doug Carlson, an information officer with the state's Department of Water Resources. But the Sierra Nevada snowpack that provides that runoff only has 13 percent of the water content it usually does by this time of year, he said.

Based on sensor readings, the state only has 3.7 inches of snow-water equivalent (the approximate amount of water you would get if you thawed all the snow at once). On average, California has 28.5 inches of snow-water equivalent by this time of year.

"We're poised to break the all-time record for the least amount of water content in the snow as of April 1," Carlson told me. Last year and 1977 are tied for the record right now. Those readings were 25 percent of the average.

"Now we're approximately half of that amount, and there's just not going to be any major storm that can make up that deficit, so it looks like we're going to smash the record for the lack of water in the snowpack," Carlson said.

Meanwhile, the lack of rain since last winter means the state's reservoirs are also sitting well below average. In years past, a good spring storm could bring levels back up to historic averages, but Carlson said that's not a possibility at this point.

"We are too far down the drought path for one storm to bring us back," he told me. "Over the last few years there's been this high pressure ridge that sits like a barricade over California and diverts any wet weather either north or south. It just isn't getting through."

In response to the latest numbers, the DWR went to California's water board with a list of stricter proposed regulations like prohibiting lawn-watering within 48 hours of a rainfall and only serving water on request in restaurants, rather than by default. The board unanimously approved the proposals.

Some communities in California already had regulations like this in place, but others were working on an honor system, hoping residents would naturally curb their water use in response to the drought. Unfortunately, that wasn't the case, Carlson explained: Governor Jerry Brown asked the state to cut back its water use by 20 per cent last year, but the state only met that goal one month of the year.

"Californians apparently have to be persuaded [in ways] other than by asking nicely to conserve water," Carlson said.