California gauges snowpack amid dry winter
Amid record-setting heat in the state's south, California's water managers will measure the Sierra Nevada snowpack, which supplies water to millions.
Department of Water Resources officials will trek to the mountains Thursday to check the snow depth, one gauge of the state's water supply. Electronic sensors show snow levels are about one-third of normal.
At the peak of California's recently ended five-year drought, Gov. Jerry Brown ordered 25 percent water conservation in cities and towns and declared a drought emergency.
Heavy rains in Northern California last year finally snapped the drought, and Brown declared the emergency over in April.
But the drought never really seemed to end in some Southern California areas, said Daniel Swain, a climate scientist with the University of California, Los Angeles.
Los Angeles received only one significant rain in almost the last 12 months.
In Ventura and Santa Barbara counties, which are about 100 miles (161 kilometers) north of Los Angeles, the lack of rain and dry vegetation were perfect fuel for a December wildfire that grew to be the largest recorded in state history. When it finally rained, the scorched earth turned into deadly mudslides.
The most recent weekly U.S. drought monitor, a product of the federal government and others, shows only small patches of the state, in Southern California, in the mildest form of drought. That compares to 2014 and 2015, some of the driest years in history in California, when much of the state was rated as in the most severe categories of drought.
In the middle of the state's winter rain and snow season, no rain is in the forecast. In Southern California, "it really is pretty grim," said Swain, who has tracked the stubborn weather patterns blocking rain from the state's south for years.
Doug Carlson, spokesman for the state's Department of Water Resources, which carries out the snowpack surveys, said the dry weather is a growing concern, although reservoirs are still fuller than usual thanks to last year's rain in Northern California.
Considerations of what constitutes a drought vary, and include: rainfall, the state of waterways, soil dryness, and other measures. Any decision to declare a new drought emergency if the winter remains dry, or later, would be up to Brown.
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