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Opinion | California snow is melting and it’s a beautiful thing

SODA SPRINGS, CALIFORNIA — My fellow Californians often comment that the weather in this state feels like it has been reduced to two seasons, both defined by natural disasters: In summer and fall, huge, intense wildfires rage through dry land, while winter and early spring bring intense atmospheric rivers with heavy rain, flooding and landslides along with tree-downing winds.

Weather extremes here are so common and climate change so strong that many people now expect to jump from one natural disaster to the next. And this pessimism means it’s hard to enjoy when, for once, nature gives us a good hand. But this year, after several brutal years of fighting drought, we finally got the water we have needed so much for so long. We better enjoy it.

In late December, a deluge of rain began to fall across the state. It eventually changed to snow that covered the mountains. That initial deluge turned into a relentless onslaught of snow and rain over the next four months that broke precipitation records in many places across the state.

At my lab in the Sierra Nevada, we saw the second snowiest year since the facility opened in 1946, with a total of 754 inches, or nearly 63 feet, of snow. Statewide, snowpack was 232 percent of average at the April 1 annual measurement, the most important assessment of the year. It was exactly what many of us in the water world have been dreaming of for years, even decades, of dry conditions.

Snow and rain were not without their challenges. In the mountains, ski resorts, which usually live or die by snowfall, actually had to close at times because the snow was falling faster than they could remove from their infrastructure. Residents and businesses were frantically calculating the weight of the snow on their roofs lest they collapse and travel to a halt on highways and interstates.

On the coast, wind from the storms pushed the sea inland, eroding fragile beaches and triggering landslides that closed roads. Farther inland, heavy rains and melting snow caused levee breaks along rivers, flooding, and the resurgence of Tulare Lake, a basin in the San Joaquin Valley that had dried up because rivers and streams that fed it were diverted by farmers. . Amid the endless snow and wet days, it was easy to wonder if the precipitation was already too good.

But as we shoveled and cleared trees and mud to reopen roads, the state’s parched reservoirs, many of which had reached record water levels in 2022, were beginning to fill up.

Now, with the rare exception of a passing storm, the sun shines. And the benefits of this once-in-a-lifetime winter are everywhere. Snow melt that continues to fill reservoirs with water will allow the state to meet 100 percent of water requests for the first time in nearly two decades. That means 27 million Californians and 750,000 acres of farmland that have been allocated only a portion or, in some cases, none of the requested water, will now have all of it, according to the California Department of Water Resources. It is the first time since 2006 that this has been possible.

Even with the spring snow melt, much of the snowpack is expected to last until July or in some cases even August or September, helping to keep Sierra Nevada forests moist and reducing danger of fires. The rivers are rising and although sometimes too intense, they will be great for rafting, kayaking and fishing. For those who do not want to leave winter behind, several ski resorts remain open well into the summer. Pockets of flooding have left some stranded and many buildings damaged, but the likelihood of severe events is decreasing as each day passes with normal melt conditions.

Of course, our water problems are not over. The long-term drying of the Southwest continues and precipitation patterns are changing in a changing climate. Eventually, the drought will return, probably sooner rather than later, and we must continue to develop solutions for low rainfall years.

But this year still feels like a reward. Instead of just preparing for the upcoming season of natural disasters of fire and drought, we can look forward to a summer when deep rivers and lakes will be full of people enjoying them. Even if it is only for one year, abundant, clear and cold waters will come down from the Sierra Nevada mountains. It’s a breath of fresh air after endless bad news about water, weather and natural disasters in the West, something to celebrate.

Andrew Schwartz is the Principal Scientist and Station Manager at the Central Sierra Snow Laboratory at the University of California, Berkeley.

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