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January storms benefit Sierra snowpack

Issue Date: January 9, 2019
By Kevin Hecteman
John King, left, a water resource engineer with the California Department of Water Resources, and Michael Anderson, DWR climatologist, conduct a snow survey at Phillips Station in El Dorado County. Storms in the days following the manual snow survey boosted the overall Sierra Nevada snowpack to more than 80 percent of average.
Photo/Ken James, DWR
Weekend storms boosted the Sierra snowpack from 67 percent of average for the date to 84 percent in the span of a few days.
Photo/Kelly Grow, DWR

Although Mother Nature blew the storm door off its hinges in parts of California last weekend, the state continues to run below average for rain and snow so far this winter.

The Jan. 5-6 precipitation, combined with the prospect of additional storms during the week, added to a snowpack that stood at only two-thirds of average levels statewide last week, when the state Department of Water Resources conducted its first manual snow survey of the new year.

By Monday, the snowpack had risen to 84 percent of average, according to DWR sensors—79 percent in the northern Sierra Nevada, 87 percent in the central Sierra and 86 percent in the southern part of the mountain range.

A year earlier, the statewide snowpack registered only 27 percent of average.

"The last few years have shown how variable California's climate truly is," DWR Director Karla Nemeth said, adding that the state's significant weather variability "means we can go from historic drought to record rainfall, with nothing in between."

California Farm Bureau Federation Director of Water Resources Danny Merkley said that variability underlines the need for additional water storage.

"We've heard many experts talk about the long-term changes in our weather patterns in recent years, and we've seen it come to fruition with a reduced Sierra snowpack during the majority of recent winters," Merkley said. "The Sierra snowpack is our largest natural reservoir. Shouldn't we increase our water storage and thin the straws—overgrown forests in the Sierra—to improve our water security for human and environmental needs to offset the reduction in our largest natural reservoir?"

The Jan. 5-6 storm brought strong winds and rainfall that in some cases broke records, including in Sacramento, which saw 1.26 inches of rain Sunday. The old record for Jan. 6 was 1.14 inches, set in 1993.

Norm Groot, executive director of the Monterey County Farm Bureau, reported strong winds during the weekend littered roads with downed trees and branches. Because most fields are out of production for the winter, no damage to farms had been reported, Groot added.

"It will take some time to clean up from this one, but we welcome all the rain we got," he said.

Cold nights in the Central Valley and on the coast last week prompted citrus growers to run wind machines and additional irrigation to protect their crops. Overnight temperatures in the days after New Year's dropped to 27 to 29 degrees, with Ventura County seeing 24 to 25 degrees, according to California Citrus Mutual.

Navel varieties can tolerate temperatures as low as 27 degrees, CCM said, while lemons can put up with 30 degrees and mandarins are vulnerable to freeze damage at 32 degrees or below. So far, the crops have weathered the cold temperatures well, the organization said.

Below-freezing temperatures were recorded last week in San Diego County as well, but no damage has yet been reported, said Eric Larson, executive director of the San Diego County Farm Bureau. It was a typical first-frost-of-winter pattern, and many of the colder temperatures were reported in nonagricultural areas, he added.

Beyond this week, it's a tossup as to what the rest of winter might look like. The Climate Prediction Center at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration sees an equal chance of average, above average or below average precipitation for most of the state during the first three months of 2019. Northern California north of Sacramento is projected to run below average, while far southeastern California—eastern San Bernardino, Riverside and Imperial counties—is predicted to see above-average precipitation.

More storm activity was predicted for the middle of the week and the following weekend, according to the National Weather Service in Sacramento, with snow levels around 5,000 to 6,000 feet.

(Kevin Hecteman is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. He may be reached at

Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.

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