Deep spring snow means California could ease water conservation rules

FILE PHOTO: State highway 28 which rings Lake Tahoe is closed by snow at Crystal Bay, California

By Sharon Bernstein

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (Reuters) – California’s Sierra Nevada Mountains are buried in snow despite warm spring weather, scientists said on Thursday, a further sign that the state is emerging from years of drought and an indication that mandatory conservation rules may soon be eased.

Three years after Democratic Governor Jerry Brown stood on a dry, brown mountainside and declared a drought emergency, state water scientists trekked to the same spot near Sacramento on Thursday to measure nearly four feet of snow – about twice as much as is normal for March and April at that location.

“California enters the snowmelt season with a large snowpack that will result in high water in many rivers through the spring,” State Climatologist Michael Anderson said in a statement.

The snowpack is key to the complex system of streams, dams and reservoirs that the most populous U.S. state relies on for water in the dry spring and summer months. Slowly melting over the dry months from April to October, the snowpack provides a third of the state’s water and is sometimes referred to as California’s largest reservoir.

During the height of the drought, there was no snow at all on many mountain peaks, and many reservoirs held only a fraction of the water they were designed to contain.

Because there is little or no rain during the summer, California relies on irrigation for farming, and both agricultural areas as well as urban centers suffered during the drought.

In January of 2014, Brown declared the drought to be an emergency. A year later, as dry conditions dragged on, he ordered the state’s first mandatory conservation rules, which included a demand that urban communities reduce their water consumption by 25 percent.

On Thursday, state water experts returned to a measuring station at Phillips, east of Sacramento near Lake Tahoe, where the snow was 46 inches high, about 183 percent of normal. Statewide, the snowpack was about 150 percent of normal for late March.

Their findings are likely to be key to state decisions regarding possibly removing the emergency declaration and an easing of conservation rules, expected in coming weeks.

However, environmental groups warned Thursday that climate change could still leave California with pervasive drought conditions, and urged continued conservation.

“Until we learn to align water demands with the amount we can reliably supply, we will suffer through perpetual water shortages,” Anna Wearn, a program assistant with the Natural Resources Defense Council, said on the organization’s blog.

(Reporting by Sharon Bernstein; Editing by Andrew Hay)