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How record snowfall could soften the 2023 drought season

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Here's some good news about the winter storms that have swept through the U.S. over the last week. For Western states dealing with drought, these blizzards are like deposits in a savings account. In the spring, the melting snowpack will pour into the region's water supply. Andrew Schwartz is with UC Berkeley's Central Sierra Snow Lab. Hey there.

ANDREW SCHWARTZ: How's it going?

SHAPIRO: Good. Where have we reached you? Describe what it looks like around you.

SCHWARTZ: I'm up in Soda Springs, Calif., which is about 45 minutes northwest of Lake Tahoe. So we're right here on the Pacific Crest where all the big storm systems come in and slam into the Sierra Nevada. We've got some big fat snowflakes falling outside, a new coat of snow on top of some existing stuff, and it's a bit of a winter wonderland out there, to be honest.

SHAPIRO: How much snow are we talking about? I mean, in northern California, to start with, what are you seeing relative to average snowfall for this time of year?

SCHWARTZ: So right now, in terms of overall snowfall, we have about 189% of what we would expect in an average year.

SHAPIRO: Wow.

SCHWARTZ: So we've had 174 inches so far, which is absolutely fantastic. Now, of course, we're primarily concerned with our water content, right? Because we want to make sure that that's all going into our reservoirs and we can try to claw our way out of this drought. So that's still good. That's still at 170%, not quite as high as the 189%, but we're definitely there. We're looking good so far.

SHAPIRO: What about a state like Nevada, which is seeing its worst drought in, by some measures, 1,200 years? I mean, how much of a dent can one good year of precipitation really make?

SCHWARTZ: Well, Nevada is doing well also. You know, we're seeing them anywhere from 170% to almost 200% of average. So they're looking quite good now as well. But with that being said, we are in such a precipitation deficiency that we need potentially a whole nother year of rain and snowfall to make up for the drought. But if we can continue these numbers and we get around to April and we're still at this wonderful above-average point, we can start talking about coming out a little bit, maybe not completely but a little bit.

SHAPIRO: Why is snowpack more useful than heavy rain when it comes to fighting drought?

SCHWARTZ: Snow is really what we want to fight drought because when we look at drought, we can divide it into two different sections. We have natural drought, which affects our ecosystems and the plants and animals that reside in them. And then we have our own human drought, where of course we're concerned about our water supply and our purposes such as agriculture. So when we talk about snow being on top of the mountains and being more important than perhaps rainfall, it's because it sits up there and really acts as a reservoir that slowly releases water in spring and summer. And while it's slowly releasing that water that goes down into our dams, it's also keeping kind of a lid on our fire danger by keeping the forest nice and moist and healthy. And it's preventing any type of real unhealthy ecosystem development that might be related to heat or water stress. So rain is definitely helpful, but we really like to see snowpack for those reasons.

SHAPIRO: We're still early in the season, so what are you looking for in the months ahead?

SCHWARTZ: This is a terrific start to the season. We're very, very excited to have it. That being said, we started this same way last year, right? We had nearly 18 feet of snowfall in the month of December alone last year here at the lab, which was an all-time high. And it was absolutely wonderful. But then the faucet shut off January through March. So what we're really looking for now is just for this storm cycle to continue. We have this great base. We need more snow to come in on top of it and provide us with even more snow on top of the above average that we already have. That way, this can continue into the spring, and we end up coming out of the drought a little bit.

SHAPIRO: Andrew Schwartz is lead scientist and manager of the UC Berkeley Central Sierra Snow Lab. Thanks a lot.

SCHWARTZ: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Enrique Rivera
Ari Shapiro has been one of the hosts of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine, since 2015. During his first two years on the program, listenership to All Things Considered grew at an unprecedented rate, with more people tuning in during a typical quarter-hour than any other program on the radio.