State officials on Tuesday reported a deeper Sierra snowpack than last year but cautioned that California needs a much wetter winter to recharge its water supplies.
The state Department of Water Resources reported from its first snow survey of the season, taken at an elevation of 6,800 feet near South Lake Tahoe. The snow depth measured 41 inches, compared to 29.2 inches a year ago, while the water content was 83 percent of normal.
Electronic sensor readings taken throughout the range show the overall water content of the Sierra snowpack at 76 percent of normal, compared to 60 percent last year.
"While today's conditions are an improvement over last year's initial snow survey figures, the strain on California's water supply persists," Lester Snow, director of the Department of Water Resources, said in a statement.
Measurements of snow depth and snow water content are important because they help hydrologists forecast water supplies and deliveries for the coming year. A series of late-arriving winter storms boosted the snowpack just before Christmas, but officials say it's too early to tell whether the wet weather will continue in the months ahead.
Last year, California marked its driest March and April on record.
The state's water system continues to be strained by drier-than-normal weather and court-ordered restrictions on pumping from the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. The reservoirs that are most crucial to the state's water-delivery system are at historic lows. Lake Oroville north of Sacramento is at 28 percent capacity.
"Storage is obviously way down from where we'd like to have it," Department of Water Resources spokesman Ted Thomas said.
Tuesday's results were the inverse of what officials had hoped. While snow levels in the southern Sierra are near normal, the snowpack throughout the northern Sierra is off by half. That's critical because the north supplies most of the water during the spring and summer runoff.
The northern Sierra's snow water content was 54 percent of normal on Tuesday.
A combination of dry weather and court-ordered restrictions have forced the state to announce it will deliver just 15 percent of the amount that local water agencies throughout California request every year. That has triggered warnings of water rationing from farmers in the Central Valley and cities from the San Francisco Bay area to San Diego.
This year, water agencies received just 35 percent of the water they requested.
Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger declared a drought in June after two dry seasons while court orders have restricted water pumping out of the fragile delta to protect native fish.
The Bush administration told state and federal officials earlier this month to slash the amount of water sent to irrigate crops and fill city taps to save the delta smelt -- a tiny, silvery fish listed as a federally threatened species.
A recommendation from the National Marine Fisheries Service to protect salmon and steelhead is expected in March, adding more pressure to reduce pumping.
Snow said the governor has called for building more dams and designing a new way to channel water around the state. Schwarzenegger's proposals, however, have failed to gain adequate support in the Legislature.