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Pine cone in melting snow Calif. Dept. of Water Resources
A pine cone sits in melting snow at Phillips Station near Lake Tahoe, where the season's third manual snow survey was conducted Feb. 27.

Warm, dry February diminishes California's snowpack

Season's third manual survey found 47 percent of average for beginning of March, but storm is on the way

The season's third manual snow survey this morning found less than half the Sierra Nevada's normal snowpack for the beginning of March, the California Department of Water Resources reports.

The manual survey at Phillips Station near Lake Tahoe recorded 29 inches of snow depth and a snow water equivalent (SWE) of 11.5 inches, which is 47 percent of the March average for this location.

“Right now, 2020 is on track to be a below-average year but we could still see large storms in March and April that will improve the current snowpack,” said Sean de Guzman, chief of DWR’s Snow Surveys and Water Supply Forecasting Section.

The agency cautions that it's not unprecedented for California to be in this position, as a dry start to March in 2018 was followed by storms that erased much of the deficit. Light to moderate snow showers are likely to return to the Sierra-Cascade range this weekend, with snow levels beginning at 3,500 to 5,500 feet on Saturday and dropping to as low as 2,000 feet on Sunday morning, according to the National Weather Service.

Electronic measurements from 130 DWR sensors throughout the state shows an average snow water equivalent of 11 inches, or 46 percent of the March average.

“The snowpack that we are measuring today is a critical element to all water resources managers in California, especially the State Water Project, which provides water to more than 27 million Californians and 750,000 acres of farmland,” said Molly White, chief of DWR’S State Water Project, Water Operations Office. “The data generated from snow surveys is one factor used to determine how much water will be allocated to the State Water Project contractors."

The state’s largest six reservoirs currently hold between 92 percent (Oroville) and 132 percent (Melones) of their historical averages for this date, according to the DWR. Shasta Lake, California’s largest surface reservoir, is at 107 percent of its historical average and sits at 78 percent of capacity, the agency reports.

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