Winter Storms Bringing Sierra Snowpack to Tall Heights

What does the data say about all this snow?

It might not bring much respite for those feeling cabin fever from all the recent snow, but this season has delivered a huge drink to a region that is starved from several years of drought. This water season, portions of the Sierra are reporting nearly double the amount of water from its snowpack than usual. The Central Sierra region – which includes 49 stations across the Tahoe Basin, Yuba River and down south to Merced and Walker – is 182% its usual April 1 average, and 192% of where it usually is on March 6. The Northern Sierra / Trinity region – which includes the Truckee River – is measuring an average snow water equivalent of more than 41 inches. That’s nearly 1.5 times the level it usually is on April 1, which is frequently used to signal the shift from winter snow to spring runoff.

A map of California with four sections of the Sierra Nevada mountain range, displaying data for snow water equivalent.
Data courtesy California Department of Water Resources; Accessed online, Mar. 6, 2023

The total snowpack across the entire California range is 192% normal for this date and 178% of its April 1 average.

Editor’s Note: April 1 is the most frequent observation date for snowpack measurement and used to project water supply forecasting. This date is generally when winter snow begins to melt and affect stream and river flow.

More snow is on the way this week. By Wednesday, the National Weather Service projects up to two feet of snow on the Sierra crest, 4-8 inches in the Tahoe Basin, 2-6 inches in northeast California and up to two inches of spotty coverage across western Nevada. That will translate to about 0.25-0.5 inches of water, before a wetter storm begins Thursday.

While this can feel like a lot (and it does feel like a lot, doesn’t it?), let’s take a step back and get some perspective. While the Sierra snowpack is nearly double its average for this time of year in many places, the range is down overall from 1955-2022.

A map showing the Tahoe Basin and the surrounding areas, with red dots sprinkled throughout. The red dots represent areas that have seen the snow water equivalent decrease from 1955-2022.
Data courtesy U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service Water and Climate Center; accessed March 6, 2023.

Over the past 67 years, the average snow water equivalent at Marlette Lake decreased 7%, Mammoth dropped 20%, and portions of the upper Truckee dipped nearly 55%.

The 2023 water season began Oct. 1 and with April weeks away, we’ll soon learn a lot more about how much of an impact this long, snowy winter season will have on the region’s water supply.

Noah Glick is the Executive Editor for the Sierra Nevada Ally. He is an award-winning journalist, writer, and audio and podcast producer, whose work has been heard nationally on NPR, Marketplace, Here & Now, and more. He is a multiple regional Edward R. Murrow Award winner for his reporting on climate, energy, and housing.


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