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April snowpack hits new record low: 6 percent of average

No snow is visible at the Phillips Station snow course on 3/29/15, days before the April 1 snowpack reading. The average amount of snow on April 1 is 66.5 inches.
Doug Carlson
No snow is visible at the Phillips Station snow course on 3/29/15, days before the April 1 snowpack reading. The average amount of snow on April 1 is 66.5 inches.

The April 1 snowpack measurement of accumulation in the Sierra Nevada Mountains is likely to be the lowest in recorded history, furthering concerns of possible water shortages during the fourth year of a historic drought.

“This is a real alarm bell going off,” said Doug Carlson, a spokesman for the California Department of Water Resources. “The combination of warm temperatures, lack of precipitation and that high pressure zone above California have all combined to give us what we’ve got today.”

The April reading is significant, because it typically marks the point at which snow accumulation has hit its maximum in a calendar year. The runoff water in subsequent weeks and months usually supplies about 30 percent of California's water.

Automated readings on March 30, 2015, showed that snow levels across the range were at 6 percent of average. The previous low was seen in 1977 and 2014, when snow was at 25 percent of average. 

Information as of March 30, 2015. Source: California Department of Water Resources.

Teams with the California Cooperative Snow Survey will conduct the April 1 reading on Wednesday afternoon, with members of the media present for the pronouncement. 

The reading is likely to be dire. On Sunday, Carlson visited Phillips Station, the site where the media will observe the measurements. He saw no snow at the site, which sits at a 6,800-foot elevation. Carlson said the location typically has an average of 66.5 inches of snow at this time of year.

“Usually, we tell our media to be sure your vehicle has chains, because it can be a little dicey on Highway 50, and bring your snowshoes," Carlson said. "I think we can tell them tomorrow, 'If you come, bring your track shoes, because we’re not going to have any snow to walk on.'”

Planning for another dry year

Water officials said plans are being made to accommodate water demands during the coming dry season. 

A spokesman for the Metropolitan Water District said that the agency's board of directors will meet in mid-April to discuss whether to curtail deliveries to local water agencies. He said that the board's decision will be based on conditions at that point in time. However, based on current dryness, significant cutbacks could be on the horizon. 

“We’d be looking at cutbacks or restrictions on our member agencies in the range from 10 to 25 percent," said Bob Muir, a spokesman for the Metropolitan Water District.

If the MWD does cut its allocations, local water suppliers will have to decide whether to raise rates or institute further restrictions on their customers. 

An official with the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power said there are currently no plans to institute further restrictions on water users. 

David Pettijohn, director of water resources for LADWP, said current restrictions and education efforts have been effective in spurring water savings. 

“We’ve seen very good response, so we’re seeing reduced demands in the city," Pettijohn said.

He said that any decisions on restrictions would have to wait until after the MWD makes a final decision.

“We’re not in a mode where we’re just responding to the MWD. We’ve been responding to this since 2009," Pettijohn said.

Pettijohn said that the LADWP would be ramping up enforcement on households that waste water. He said that the agency has investigated about 7,000 reports of water waste and issued 6,000 letters to wasters. He said few violations have been issued, because response to the letters has been satisfactory.

“As we educate people who are in violation of the city’s ordinance, they almost universally respond to the outreach and education,” he said.