The latest snow survey could more accurately be labeled the dry-land survey. A site at 6,800 feet in the mountains had no snow at all for the first time since the California Department of Water Resources first did the survey in 1950. From north to south in the Sierra Nevada Mountains the snow pack is the smallest ever measured.
One thing that is striking about the above graphic is that big years are what has lulled Californians (and Nevadans) to think our reservoirs and groundwater pumping is just fine – thank you very much. In our short history we have seen time and again a wet winter to come just in time to offset a run of dry ones. Whew!
But what if the wet ones stop coming? Then what. We are getting a look at just such a scenario now with a 6% of average snowpack following on 3 very, very dry ones. Few ever thought such a situation was in the cards.
With so much water going to human uses from agriculture to cities to industry, the natural environment – our rivers and lakes – take a much bigger hit in droughts. Much of the replenishment of our natural systems can only occur in exceptionally wet years. The rest of the time – even in average flow years – the environment experiences an artificial drought as water that normally would fill rivers and lakes instead fills reservoirs and canals and partially recharges depleted groundwater systems.
Changing our historic over-use of water will be painful – if we choose to take up the challenge of preserving our rivers and lakes.