This post is both a look back at ten years of Geotripping, but is also an update on snow and precipitation conditions in California right now, and that picture is not pretty. My backyard rain gauge had amassed a mere 1.22" of rain by the beginning of January, and while January had higher than normal precipitation, I only show 4.66" for the rain year, just a bit over 50% of normal (I think we benefited from a few isolated downpours, as Modesto, just 13 miles away is at 3.09"). During the historic drought of 2011-16, three of the dry years were wetter than this.
I walked the Tuolumne River Parkway Trail today, and for the first time in weeks I could see the Sierra Nevada, the peaks that loom high above Yosemite Valley. The sun reflected off a snowpack that was far different than it was a year ago. The snowpack is only 30% of normal (see below). It's late January and there are a few ski resorts that haven't even opened yet (if they'll even open at all).
If there is any bright spot in this dismal year it is California's reservoirs. Because of the ample rain and snow last year, most of the reservoirs are at healthy levels, more than 100% of normal (see below). One prominent exception is Oroville Reservoir, which was lowered drastically to allow repairs to the spillways that failed during the height of the storms last year. There is at least some comfort to know that we have some resources to weather another drought, at least for a few years. I would have preferred a few wet years to help replenish our depleted groundwater reservoirs. That is a lasting effect of the drought that may not be fixed any time soon.
I've been going through the Geotripper archives to select some of my favorite blog posts of the last ten years. The first half of 2017 was dominated by my observations of the extraordinarily wet year and the flooding, which I called "Liveblogging the Deluge". I wrote dozens of posts all through the first half of the year, and it was hard to pick any particular ones to illustrate here, so I settled on the one I wrote exactly one year ago. It involved the post-mortem of the first of the major atmospheric river storms that battered the state. Many more were to come...
Thursday, January 26, 2017
The atmospheric river storms of January have finally subsided, and we are looking at kind of a new landscape across California. We had a couple of sunny days, so we headed up the highway to have a look at Don Pedro Reservoir on the Tuolumne River coming out of Yosemite. When we visited on January 5, the lake stood at 786 feet, which translates to 76% of capacity. That was 114% of normal for this time of year, which was a relief after five years of intense drought.
|Don Pedro Reservoir on January 26 after two atmospheric river storms, elevation 813 feet (90% of capacity).|
When we arrived yesterday, the lake stood at 813 feet, or 90% of capacity, which is 133% of normal. It is only 17 feet below the level of the dam. It could have been higher, but the dam operators have been maintaining constant outflows in the range of 7,000-9,000 cubic feet per second, a level that is just short of flood stage. Had they not done this, the lake could have overflowed and flooded downstream urban areas as happened in 1997.
|Tuolumne River in Waterford, about 8,000 cubic feet per second|
My rain gauge has been active. My friends in more humid regions may snicker a bit when I talk of how we've had 7.38 inches of precipitation in January. That might not seem like all that much but in 25 years of recording rainfall in Waterford, only two had greater amounts, 7.58" in 1995, and 8.60" in 2011. We've had a year where that was the total for the entire season (7.26" in 2014). We've already passed the total rainfall normally received in an average year (14.69" so far compared to 13.92" average for the last 25 years).
But the real story? The snowpack.
At the height of the drought, we had a snowpack that was 5% of normal. 5%! It was both unbelievable and appalling.
And the snow kept falling! The second atmospheric river storm system brought even more snow, and as of today, the snowpack is nearly 200% of normal. If the trend continues (there is NO guarantee of this), we could be on track for a record snowpack. I don't consider it likely, but it would be nice to start recharging the groundwater aquifers that have been severely depleted in recent years.
The record snowpack should not be seen as evidence that global warming isn't happening. Average temperatures are defiinitely up and have been for several decades. The thing is, snow is snow whether the temperature is 15 degrees or 30 degrees. A not-at-all unusual heat wave could undo the progress in the snow levels. The sky spigot could turn off. After the record flooding of 1997, February and March both provided less than a quarter inch of rain over the entire month. And the drought will never be truly over, as demand outstrips supply even in plentiful years. And little is being done to replenish declining groundwater aquifers.
All in all, though, I'm happier to have plentiful rain rather than crippling drought!