Sierra snowpack

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Hydropower With a Shrinking Snowpack

And why that could show up in your electric bill

We’ve mapped all of California’s hydropower dams as part of our series on “Water and Power.”

Craig Miller

PCWA's Ralston Powerhouse on the Rubicon River in Placer County. California typically gets about 15% of its electricity from hydro facilities inside the state..

While much is uncertain about California’s warming climate, there is little doubt that it’s already changing the fundamentals of how most of us get our water. In fact, the Bureau of Reclamation has estimated that the Sierra snowpack could be reduced by half as soon as a decade from now.

And that has some far-reaching implications that could even show up on your electric bill.

“When you hear people talk about a depleted snowpack, it’s because of warmer temperatures and the snow just cannot stay in the hills,” says Robert Shibatani, a hydrologist and consultant to numerous government agencies. He says the “hydrograph” for California — the “usual” pattern of precipitation and runoff — is already changing. “There’s no question about it,” he told me in a recent interview. “That’s not an if. It’s not even a when, because I can tell you the when. It’s happening now.” Continue reading

California Winds Up “Wet” Season on the Dry Side

But communities that depend more on rain, less on the snowpack are looking good

Craig Miller

In mid-January, much of the Sierra remained snowless.

Despite what felt like a late-season deluge, this will go down as a dry winter in California’s record books.

The season’s final survey of the Sierra snowpack by California water officials confirms that even heavy spring rains and fresh mountain snow as recently as last week didn’t make up for a late start to the rainy season and one of the driest Decembers on record. Today’s survey finds water content of the mountain snow at just 40% of the long-term average. That puts four out of the last five years on the dry side, though last year was a gullywhumper. Continue reading