Snowpack atop the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Bright white snowpack atop California’s Sierra Nevada Mountains, rich green vegetation, and a swollen Sacramento River are visible evidence of welcome outcomes of storms that moved across the drought-stricken region in March. The Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) aboard NASA’s Terra satellite captured this true-color image on March 17, 2016.
The abundant precipitation partially replenished reservoirs across California, especially in northern California. For example, Lake Shasta, a key reservoir which provides water to the growers in the northern Central Valley, returned to its historic average by mid-March. By March 18, that reservoir had received so much water that the Federal Bureau of Reclamation had to increase water released from the dam from 5,000 cubic feet per second to 20,000 feet per second – only the second time since 2011 that the released has reached that rate.
The Sierra snowpack also showed improvement in March. According to the National Operational Hydrological Remote Sensing Center (NOHRSC), as of March 24 the percentage of normal snowpack over the southern Sierra had reached 73 percent of normal – a level which they characterize as “considerably higher than the past few seasons”.
Although the El Niño -driven wetness is encouraging, especially in the recently soaked northern part of the state, the long-standing drought is not resolved. Indeed, as of March 22, the U.S. Drought Monitor classifies much of California – especially the Central Valley – at “exceptional drought” status, which is the highest classification available. On March 24, the NOHRSC cautioned that the Sierra snowpack, although improved from recent past years, is only about 72 percent of the April 1 average, and that even a normal April 1 snowpack would not be sufficient to fill reservoirs this spring.