SODA SPRINGS, CALIFORNIA — My fellow Californians often remark that the weather in this state feels like it has been reduced to two seasons, both defined by natural disasters: In summer and fall, huge, intense wildfires rip their way across dry land, while winter and early spring bring intense atmospheric rivers with heavy rainfall, floods and landslides along with winds that take down trees.
The weather extremes here are so common, and climate change is so in your face, that many people now just expect to jump from one natural disaster to the next. And this pessimism means it’s hard to enjoy it when — for once — nature deals us a good hand. But this year, after several brutal years of fighting drought, we finally got the water that we have so sorely needed for so long. We damn well better enjoy it.
In late December, a deluge of rain began falling around the state. It eventually changed to snow that blanketed the mountains. That initial deluge turned into a relentless onslaught of snow and rain over the next four months that broke precipitation records in many places around the state.
At my lab in the Sierra Nevada, we saw the second snowiest year since the facility opened in 1946, with a total of 754 inches, or nearly 63 feet, of snowfall. Statewide, the snowpack was 232 percent of average at the annual April 1 measurement, the most important assessment of the year. It was the very thing that many of us in the water world have been dreaming about during years, even decades, of dry conditions.
The snow and rain was not without its challenges. In the mountains, ski resorts — which usually live or die by their snowfall — actually had to close at times because the snow was falling faster than they could clear it from their infrastructure. Residents and businesses were frantically calculating the weight of the snow on their roofs lest they cave in, and travel ground to a halt on the highways and interstates.
On the coast, the storms’ wind pushed the sea to surge onto the land, eroding fragile beaches, and triggering landslides that closed roads. Further inland, the intense rainfall and snow melt led to breaks in levees along rivers, floods and the re-emergence of Tulare Lake, a basin in the San Joaquin Valley that had gone dry because the rivers and streams that fed it were diverted by farmers. In the middle of the endless snow shoveling and wet days, it was easy to wonder if the precipitation was already too much of a good thing.
But while we were shoveling, and clearing trees and mud to reopen roads, the state’s parched reservoirs, many of which had hit record low water levels in 2022, were beginning to fill.
Now, with the rare exception of a passing storm, the sun is shining. And the benefits of this once-in-a-lifetime winter are everywhere. Melting snow that continues to fill reservoirs with water will allow the state to fill 100 percent of water requests for the first time in nearly two decades. That means that 27 million Californians and 750,000 acres of farmland that have been allocated only some or, in some cases, none of their requested water will now have all of it, according to the California Department of Water Resources. It’s the first time since 2006 that this has been possible.
Even with the spring snow melt, much of the snowpack is expected to last into July or, in some cases, even into August or September, which will help keep Sierra Nevada forests moist and the fire danger lower. Rivers are rising and, while a bit too intense at times, will make for great rafting, kayaking and fishing. For those that don’t want to leave winter behind, several ski resorts are staying open well into the summer. Pockets of flooding have left some stranded and many buildings damaged, but the likelihood of severe events is decreasing as each day passes with normal melt conditions.
Of course our water woes are not over. The long-term drying of the Southwest continues and precipitation patterns are shifting in a changing climate. Eventually drought will return — likely sooner than later — and we need to continue developing solutions to low precipitation years.
But this year still feels like a reward. Rather than solely preparing for the upcoming natural disaster season of fire and drought, we get to anticipate a summer when flowing rivers and deep lakes will be full of people enjoying them. If only for one year, abundant, clear and cold waters will come down from the Sierra Nevada mountains. It’s a breath of fresh air after seemingly endless bad news about water, climate, and natural disasters in the West, one to celebrate.
Andrew Schwartz is the lead scientist and station manager at the University of California, Berkeley, Central Sierra Snow Lab.
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