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Posted on: April 8, 2021

Recent snow surveys confirm another dry water year ahead for Yuba River watershed

Two men take a snow sample with a metal pipe during a snow survey.

Despite a series of storms earlier this year and a snowpack visible from the valley floor, California is on track for another dry water year. That’s according to recent snow surveys by local and state agencies and various forecast models.

“Our recent aerial surveys revealed that snowpack in the Yuba River watershed is patchy, with snow coverage holding on in the north, but melted or melting at southern exposure points,” said Yuba Water Agency Supervising Hydrologist Charles Johnck, who led the agency’s April snow surveys.

The surveys showed the snow water equivalent – the amount of water in the snowpack – for Yuba Water’s two main survey sites at Sunnyside Meadow Robinson and Cow Camp were 78 percent of the April 1 average. Early April conditions are a strong indicator of the overall water supply forecast for the remainder of the year because that’s when California’s snowpack is generally at its deepest and wettest point of the year.

“Even though our precipitation has been 50-60 percent of average this year, our runoff to date has been just 25 percent of what we normally see by this time,” explained John James, an atmospheric scientist and water operations project manager with Yuba Water.

Lower runoff suggests more snowpack will be absorbed into the ground as it melts in the months ahead, rather than as runoff into rivers, streams and Yuba Water’s New Bullards Bar Reservoir. The reservoir stores water for Yuba County crop irrigation and energy generation and ensures a source of cool water for fishery enhancement downstream.

“Although it’s likely we’ll be below our end-of-year storage targets at Bullards, we’re constantly monitoring and optimizing our operations to manage what is available to us,” James said. “We also have strong relationships with our member units and strategies like our Sustainable Groundwater Management Plan and agreements under the Lower Yuba River Accord to help minimize impacts from any potential surface water shortages.”

Each year, Yuba Water supplies about 260,000 acre-feet of water to eight local water districts, known as member units. Those districts, which convey water supplies to Yuba County farmers and ranchers, include Brophy Water District, Browns Valley Irrigation District, Cordua Irrigation District, Dry Creek Mutual Water Company, Hallwood Irrigation Company, Ramirez Water District, South Yuba Water District and Wheatland Water District.

Yuba Water’s snow surveys are part of the Department of Water Resources’ California Cooperative Snow Surveys Program and are a critical tool for “ground-truthing” continuous monitoring station data and forecast models that inform reservoir operations. Yuba Water has been monitoring the same sites since it took over operations from PG&E in 2016, though the sites have records dating back to 1972.

Learn more about our water supply mission and California’s snow survey program.

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