Historically dry: Despite December’s historic snowfall, officials warn of drought

Very little snow remains on the ground for the California Department of Water Resources' fourth snow survey of the 2022 season on April 1 at Phillips Station in the Sierra Nevada. The survey is held approximately 90 miles east of Sacramento, off Highway 50 in El Dorado County.
Ken James/California Department of Water Resources
California Department of Water Resources Director Karla Nemeth and Natural Resources Secretary Wade Crowfoot watch as Sean de Guzman, manager of the California Department of Water Resources Snow Surveys and Water Supply Forecasting Unit, conducts the fourth media snow survey of the 2022 season. At an elevation of 6,800 feet, most of the snow has melted at Phillips Station in the Sierra Nevada. Since 1941, the average April 1 snow depth is 66.5 inches at this location.
Kenneth James/California Department of Water Resources

A dry 2022 has given way to spring storms this week, blanketing the Sierra Nevada in much needed snow and rain.

Before this week’s snow, the Department of Water Resources announced the state’s snowpack was 38% of average, marking the lowest figure for the state’s snow levels since 2015.

The snowpack at Philips Station in South Tahoe has plunged since a historic amount of snow fell in December. In a normal season, surveyors have seen snowpack depths of around 5 feet, but at the beginning of the month, which is typically when the snowpack peaks, a meager 2.5 inches of snow was measured.

“The conditions we are seeing today speak to how severe our drought remains. (Department of Water Resources) has been planning for the reality of a third dry year since the start of the water year on October 1,” said Department of Water Resources Director Karla Nemeth in a news release. “While (Department of Water Resources) has made significant investments in forecasting technology and other tools to ensure we make the most out of the snowmelt we do receive, water conservation will remain our best tool in the face of this ongoing drought and the statewide impacts of a warming climate. All Californians must focus on conserving water now.”

The past three months have been the driest on state record, according to California Secretary for Natural Resources Wade Crowfoot.

“Some may say this is a wake up call. I disagree,” said Crowfoot following the April 1 survey at Phillips Station. “The alarm has already gone off. Climate change is here and climate change has been here … despite some remarkably wet periods and snowy periods this winter, we leave this winter in a very, very bad condition with our water situation.”


On March 28, Gov. Gavin Newsom called on local water suppliers to move to Level 2 of their water shortage contingency plans. Newsom also ordered the State Water Resources Control Board to evaluate the adoption of regulations banning irrigation of “non-functional” turf or grass, such as decorative grass adjacent to large industrial and commercial buildings. The ban would not include residential lawns or grass used for recreation, such as school fields, sports fields and parks. The Department of Water Resources estimates this ban alone will result in potential water savings of several hundred thousand acre-feet.

An acre-foot of water serves the needs of approximately three households for a year.

“While we have made historic investments to protect our communities, economy and ecosystems from the worsening drought across the West, it is clear we need to do more,” Newsom said in a news release. “Today, I am calling on local water agencies to implement more aggressive water conservation measures, including having the water board evaluate a ban on watering ornamental grass on commercial properties, which will drive water use savings at this critical time. Amid climate-driven extremes in weather, we must all continue to do our part and make water conservation a way of life.”

Locally, the Truckee Donner Public Utility District, which obtains its water through pumping from the Martis Valley Groundwater Basin, remains in a comfortable position with a water supply that’s projected to withstand several years of drought. The multiple aquifer system has a storage volume of about 484,00 acre-feet. Past studies by the district have indicated the supply is more than sufficient to supply local customers and can withstand a five-year drought with below average groundwater recharge.

Tahoe City customers receive their water from deep wells within the basin. Tahoe City Public Utility District is urging its customers to reduce water consumption by 15%. The district also has designated irrigation days, and other measures in place to mitigate water needs.

The region’s largest body of water, Lake Tahoe, was measured at a level of 6,224.10 feet on Thursday, compared to the maximum legal limit of 6,229.1 feet. The lake was more than a foot higher at the same time last year. With lake levels below the legal limit, water won’t be let out of Tahoe into the Truckee River unless downstream demands aren’t being met, according to Federal Water Master Chad Blanchard.

Though this week’s storms provide some relief, the amount of precipitation is merely a drop in the bucket during an otherwise dry first three months of 2022.

“It’s not going to contribute (much) to the snowpack,” said Nevada Weather Service Senior Meteorologist Dawn Johnson. “But it does help. Anything is going to help.”

Another system is forecast to hit the area tonight, said Johnshon, bringing snow and rain from the Pacific. Winds are expected to pick up tonight with the heaviest rain and snow falling Saturday morning. Johnson said to expect a mix of rain and snow at lake level.

Easter Sunday is shaping up to have clear weather, but another storm is expected to impact the area beginning Monday night and into Tuesday.

Justin Scacco is a staff writer with the Sierra Sun. He can be reached at

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