State officials reported a Sierra Nevada snowpack smaller than normal on Thursday and said California may be at the beginning of its worst drought in modern history. Residents were immediately urged to conserve water.
The snowpack was about 61% of its usual depth across the 400-mile-long mountain range, according to the state Department of Water Resources, which released the findings as part of the second snow survey of the season.
Department Director Lester Snow said the results indicate California could be heading for a third dry year.
“We may be at the start of the worst California drought in modern history,” Snow said in a statement. “It’s imperative for Californians to conserve water immediately at home and in their businesses.”
Measurements of snow depth and snow water content in the Sierra are important because they help hydrologists forecast how much water California can expect to get in the coming year.
Levels were 49% of normal in the northern Sierra and about 63% of normal in the central region and 68% of normal in the southern region.
California’s largest reservoirs — Shasta and Oroville — are less than half as full as they should be for this time of year. The snowpack water content needs to be roughly double what it is today by April to replenish the reservoirs, said Don Strickland, a spokesman for the water
It’s doubtful Mother Nature will grow the snowpack by that much. Felix Garcia, a meteorologist at the National Weather Service, said a La Nina weather pattern over the Pacific Ocean is pushing most of this year’s winter storms past California.
“The rain is happening but it’s happening way north in Washington and in Canada,” Garcia said. “It is expected to remain about the same for the next two to three months.”
The state has said it will deliver just 15% of its water contracts this year because of the low reservoir levels and court-ordered restrictions not to pump water to protect a threatened fish that lives in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta.
The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation last week warned farmers that water deliveries would be low this year. The agency intends to release its annual delivery estimates next month.
And in neighboring Nevada, the U.S. Agriculture Department has declared almost all of the state a natural disaster area because of losses caused by drought over the past year.