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Low-snow winters could impact local, state water reservoir supply

The Sierra Nevada could see persistent low-snow winters in the next 35 to 60 years.
Photo by Mikhail Nilov from Pexels
The Sierra Nevada could see persistent low-snow winters in the next 35 to 60 years.

A recent study done by several institutions, including UC Santa Barbara, suggests that low-to-no-snow winters could become a regular occurrence in the Sierra Nevada in the next 35 to 60 years.

Mountain snowpacks have been declining for years as the climate has been changing and this new research says we could see persistent low-to-no-snow seasons in a matter of decades.

Naomi Tague is an ecohydrology professor at UC Santa Barbara and is one of the co-authors of this research. She said changing snowpacks have incredibly cascading impacts on things like the ecology of the land and human water supply.

“Really for decades I’ve been looking at, ‘What’s the implication of earlier snowmelt?'” Tague said.

A significant portion of California’s water has always come from snow. Tague said this research solidifies the need to plan for the future and start managing reservoirs differently.

“The first thing you need to do as a local water manager is think about where you’re getting your water from and how sensitive [it is] going to be from changing snow,” Tague said.

San Luis Obispo County has several local reservoirs which are primarily watershed and reliant on precipitation. They wouldn’t be impacted directly from changing snowpacks.

But according to Courtney Howard, the water resources division manager with County Public Works, low snow could impact SLO County because of the area’s allocation of water from the State Water Project.

Howard said the county uses roughly 5,000 acre feet of water per year that does rely on snowmelt up in Northern California. She said that amount of water is what is needed to run about 10,000 homes in a year. Howard said the county stores even more of that water for later use.

“If the snowmelt is happening faster and the snow isn’t serving as storage and the state needs to use the San Luis Reservoir more to capture more water, then we don’t have as much storage ability,” Howard said.

She said local and state water managers are preparing for low snow winters by developing best practices for water storage, use and transfer.

Howard said the county is also developing a wastewater reuse program and is even talking about building a desalination plant if the local reservoirs become less reliable.

Rachel Showalter first joined KCBX as an intern from Cal Poly in 2017. During her time in college, she anchored and reported for Mustang News at Cal Poly's radio station, KCPR. After graduating, she took her first job as a Producer at KSBY-TV. She returned to the KCBX team in October 2020, reporting daily for KCBX News until she moved to the Pacific Northwest in July of 2022. Rachel spends her off-days climbing rocks, cooking artichokes and fighting crosswords with friends.
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