Big Snow For The Golden State
California has always been defined by periods of excess like the gold rushes or crippling drought and wildfires. Occasionally, excess extends to the snowpack. The Sierra Nevada snowpack is a critical water source for the state. Some years there’s a lot, some years, it’s dangerously low.
2023 is shaping up to be a great year for the Golden State because of record-breaking snowfall. In fact, this past winter produced the most seasonal snowfall in 30 years. So, is it enough to relieve the decades-long drought? Or is this just a temporary pause in the slow march to desertification?
What Does The Record Snowfall Mean?
In the immediate future, it means ski resorts are open longer, and reservoir levels are rising. It also means that many Californians may not have to cut as much water use this year.
However, once the snowmelt starts, the risk of catastrophic flooding increases. Officials are working hard to capture as much of the snowmelt as they can. But, if it melts too quickly, the water will run out to the ocean before it can be used.
At peak snowpack in early April, California sat at around 233% of normal; that is a record. However, since the state has been in a decades-long drought, what’s considered “normal” has trended downward. Data collection has also become more accurate since the 1950s, when snowlevels were first recorded.
Taking all that into account, 2023 will go down as the highest snowpack compared to normal. However, in raw numbers, it’s only fourth. The big question is, does that matter?
In a word? Yes. It could dilute the fact that the West is bone dry and may help roll back or delay water cuts. If that happens, dwindling resources like the Colorado River will take up more of the burden. If next years snowpack is low, the drought will just roar back.
How Should I Feel About This News?
You should feel cautiously relieved. Mother nature spared California, but it's only a pause. Water cuts might still be on the table, wildfires might still rage, and inflated reservoir levels aren’t guaranteed to stay.
How Can I Safely Enjoy The Snowpack?
If you plan to recreate in California, the big snowpack means a few things.
- First, check out California's ski resorts; many have extended their seasons. Also, take a look at our guides on ski slope ratings, how much skiing costs, and how to get up after a skiing fall.
- The backcountry ski season is also longer, meaning you can find turns through July or August. Check out my colleague’s video on essential backcountry skiing gear if you plan to go out.
- If you’re a rafter, prepare for dangerous river conditions due to snowmelt. Anything over 5,000 CFS (cubic ft. per second) is considered high water.
- Prepare for the unexpected. Trails in steep valleys or canyons can experience dangerous flash flooding from rapid snowmelt. Use our hiking safety tips to stay ahead of danger!
- Popular trails may have more snow on them than in previous years. If you plan on hiking a long trail like the PCT or the Sierra Crest, make sure you’re prepared to hike and camp in the snow.
- Stay off of closed trails. Between snow and erosion caused by flooding, many popular trails will experience closures this year. Be patient and have a backup plan.
*The information on this site is based on research and first-hand experience but should not be treated as medical advice. Before beginning any new activity, we recommend consulting with a physician, nutritionist or other relevant professional healthcare provider.