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Frank Gehrke (at center), chief of snow surveys for California's Department of Water Resources, carries a tube used to measure snowpack at Echo Summit on April 1, 2014.


California Snowpack Measure Shows No End in Sight for Drought

Surveyors visited the Sierra Nevadas to gauge prospects for water runoff this spring.

Despite some recent storms, California's chief snow surveyor delivered more grim news Tuesday for his drought-plagued state: The snow that's fallen so far contains only one-third of the average water content for this time of the year.

As opposed to a very wet "miracle March" that many Californians hoped for, state officials said that last month marked a "mediocre March"—not as dry as December and January, but falling far short of the deluge needed to lift the state out of drought. (Related: "Does California Rain Mean the Drought Is Over?")

Tuesday's snow total was the lowest April 1 reading since 1988, when Sierra Nevada snows were at 29 percent of normal.

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"We can hope that conditions improve, but time is running out and conservation is the only tool we have against nature's whim," said state Department of Water Resources director Mark Cowin on Tuesday.

Images of state surveyor Frank Gehrke trekking into the snow-blanketed Echo Summit area of the Sierra Nevada mountains and plunging an aluminum tube into the snow were broadcast on TV affiliates and websites across the state, an indication of the suspense around the last-of-the-year snowpack measure.

Once a month during the winter, the state surveyor manually measures the snow and its water content. The April 1 survey is particularly critical because it measures the peak of the snowpack, before it starts melting. Soon the state's rainy season will be over.

Gehrke's measurement, combined with dozens of electronic readings yielding similar results, will determine the fate of the state's multibillion-dollar agriculture industry, as well as fish populations and urban drinking water.

The meager snowmelt promises to extend the drama of the state's water wars, with different constituencies vying for limited supplies of the precious resource.

Farmers in Limbo

Still, the news is better than it was a month ago. Before the recent storms, California's snow water content was estimated to be at 25 percent of normal. In February, it was just 14 percent of normal.

This year is on track to be California's fifth or sixth driest year in history, with its final ranking to be determined, according to the state Department of Water Resources.

Farmers remain in limbo, uncertain whether to count on irrigation water from the government-controlled systems. Updated estimates on how much irrigation water will be released won't be ready for days or weeks. Because some farmers were told to expect no irrigation water, many fields have been left unplanted.

Desperate California farmers are drilling or deepening wells to water their crops, draining the precious aquifer beneath the nation's most productive farmland. (Related: "In California, Demand for Groundwater Causing Huge Swaths of Land to Sink.")


Pointing Fingers

Both farmers and environmentalists blame the state for not investing in new strategies to protect against drought.

"As the saying goes, you reap what you sow, and our state and federal governments have failed miserably at providing the resources and infrastructure to adapt," said California Farm Bureau president Paul Wenger.

He recommended such measures as building new reservoirs and desalination plants.

But environmental groups such as the Natural Resources Defense Council said Tuesday's findings underscore the need for leaders to find ways to boost water efficiency.

Environmentalists were angered by a state decision Tuesday to temporarily waive an endangered species protection to enable water managers to send more northern California water south.

Normally, there's an April 1 limit on water releases to protect fish migrating through the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. This year, that water will be kept in storage for human use in 2015.

Tuesday's news is unlikely to end the official drought declaration for the state. That order, made by the governor in January, will remain in effect until there is a political decision to end it.

Another storm system is forecast to hit California late Thursday and into Friday, helping the snowpack grow a little more. The final measure of the season is scheduled for May 1.

Lisa M. Krieger covers science and the drought for the San Jose Mercury News.