California's statewide snowpack is below average after a warm February and months of only moderate precipitation that followed a promising start to the wet season.
State surveyors traveled up the Sierra Nevada Tuesday to take their monthly measurements of the snowpack, which supplies about a third of the water needed by state residents, agriculture and industry as it melts in the late spring and summer. Fears that warm conditions in February could diminish what was, at one point this winter, above-average snowpack were confirmed.
Statewide snowpack is at just 83 percent of average for March 1, according to the Department of Water Resources. The agency's survey Tuesday at Echo Summit in the Central Sierra, which includes Lake Tahoe, showed snowpack was at 105 percent of average, compared to 130 percent at the same spot the month before.
"Mother Nature is not living up to predictions by some that a 'Godzilla' El Niño would produce much more precipitation than usual this winter," said Department of Water Resources Director Mark Cowin. "We need conservation as much as ever."
Last year marked California's driest four-year spell on record, leading Gov. Jerry Brown last April to order mandatory 25 percent water conservation for cities and towns. The conservation order remains in effect.
Despite the dry spell in February, the Sierra is having a better snow year than at any point since 2011. As of Monday, the snowpack statewide was about 19 percent of normal at this time last year, the lowest number on record, the San Jose Mercury News reported.
Significant drought relief this season appears to be possible only if the state has another "March Miracle," such as in 1991 and 1995 when heavy rain and snowfall arrived late in the wet season.
"Right now, we're obviously better than last year but still way below what would be considered adequate for any reasonable level of recovery at this point," said Frank Gehrke, chief of the state's snow surveys program.
Forecasters say California, in its fifth year of drought, could still get plenty of El Nino rain in March and April. A strong storm is expected to come into Northern California this weekend, the National Weather Service said.
Historically, half of California's annual water falls as rain or snow during December, January and February.
Water managers say they're focused on the April 1 snowpack, when it's historically at its deepest. They say the snowpack needs be 150 percent of normal, signaling an easing drought.