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What the Snow in California Means
April 4, 2023

What the Snow in California Means

Reading Time: 5 minutes

California Is Shattering Snow Records. That’s Wonderful—and Terrifying., For me, for all of us., What does the snow in California mean? It’s good, and bad.

In case you hadn’t noticed … it’s snowing! Well, maybe not wherever you live. But my brain is a homing pigeon.

As I type this, I’m sitting in Brooklyn, where it is currently daffodil season, after one of New York’s least snowy winters. This feels strange and incorrect, because in California, it is California poppy season. Also in California, it is snowing! It’s basically … the snowiest.

‘We are just shattering records,’ said California Department of Water Resources forecaster Sean de Guzman at a monthly snow survey on Monday. Behind him, a building was snowed-in to the eves.

Snowpack in the Sierra Nevadas is at 237 percent of normal volume, surpassing the previous record of 234 percent back in 1983. The Southern and Central Sierras are well past their 1983 peaks. The area near Donner Pass, a famously bad place to get stuck in the snow in a covered wagon, had its snowiest March since 1952.

Tweets are comparing big drifts to more familiar landmarks to help East Coasters understand: the Statue of Liberty. The Empire State Building. The state of Texas. The snow feels taller than all of them. Tahoe has 722 inches of snow to date—more than 60 feet.

People are snow diving off second story balconies. Houses have morphed into Dr. Seuss–inspired castles. Ski resort chair lifts have snow in their laps. Ski season, it has been announced, will run through the Fourth of July.

More importantly, California’s reservoirs depend on the Sierra snowpack, so snow now means water this summer. In September, 92 percent of the state was in a severe drought. Now, more than two-thirds of the state is drought free. 

‘Where in California does it snow, exactly?’ asked a New Yorker whom I’ve been filling in on the news. The answer, usually, is ‘in the mountains.’ Placer County, where I grew up, stretches from the Nevada border—where Lake Tahoe sits at 6,200 feet—across the Sierra Nevadas and down into the Central Valley.

Even on the Central Valley side of the county where I lived—where it got frosty, but not snowy—we were close enough to the mountains that people could show up at school with truck beds full of fluffy powder. During track practice, we had snowball fights in 80 degree weather. We’d dig in and cool off. In the ’90s, my best friend would regularly vanish from school on good snow days to go skiing with her ski-bum parents. We’d regularly hear about 5-, 10-, 15-foot drifts.

Then, the snow got scarce. So did the rain. Much of the state was in drought for much of the mid-2010s. The answer to ‘where does it snow’ was ‘nowhere much.’ At lower elevations, the rain would come rarely, for an hour or so, then move on.

At some point, I fell asleep to the sound of a heavy rain on the deck outside my window. When I woke up in the morning and it was still raining, I felt like I could finally exhale. I realized I couldn’t remember the last time it had rained all night.

It didn’t last. In 2014, the drought became California’s worst in 1,200 years. Tahoe made more fake snow than usual to fill up the ski lifts. The state trucked 26 million migratory salmon to the ocean, bypassing streams that were too dry for them to swim down. Fights over water rights—between agriculture and everyone else—got more intense. Peach farmers who used to go rafting to cool off started setting up lawn chairs in river beds instead. The Winnemem Wintu tribe started their now annual 300-mile Run4Salmon trek to pray for salmon runs—and to advocate for water policies that would allow their return.

Millions and millions of drought-stressed trees died and then—even during a couple of wetter years—burned. Even foggy redwood forests burned. Wells dried up.

In 2021, early winter storms in Northern California felt like a hopeful sign but were followed by a dry January. The next summer, Gov. Gavin Newsom pleaded with Californians to use 15 percent less water. I tried to convince my mom to put a brick in her toilet or to switch in low-flow showerheads. She plugged up drip irrigation leaks. I started taking shorter showers. I came back to New York after a visit home and felt secretly guilty about taking longer showers again. To atone, I swore off almonds (almonds from the Central Valley; almond trees need a lot of water).

Los Angeles started paying farmers to stop watering their fields. Stalemates over SoCal’s share of the Colorado River became existential. The last three years were California’s driest on record. Another year of bad snow would have just about broken the state.

And then: The skies burst. Levees burst. On New Year’s Day, I drove through the flood waters near Galt to get home. Across the valley from the highway, the Sierras look like pointy clouds. I flew back East over green hills and deep white drifts. Then, all sorts of low elevation places got snow: the Bay Area. Joshua Tree. I watched from New York. ‘Please send the kidnapped snow back to NYC where it belongs,’ I emailed a friend.

California needed it more, though. As of March 30, my home county is 100 percent drought-free for the first time in more than three years.

I can’t help but exhale. Alleluia, I think. Dayenu. ‘My cup runneth over,’ said the Psalmist, and the phrase loops in my mind—a prayer of gratitude from an arid place.

Soon, though, our reservoirs will indeed ‘runneth over.’ Snow now means more flooding later. Uphill from Bakersfield, snowpack in the Kern watershed is at 422 percent of normal. The Army Corps of Engineers is trying to dig an extra hole in the Lake Isabella reservoir to prepare for the melt; the city of Bakersfield is reinforcing bridges.

In the Southern Central Valley, Tulare Lake—once the largest freshwater lake west of the Mississippi—has reappeared, as it did in 1983. This area is also downstream from lots of snow. (Newsom signed an executive order last week to help communities that are already dealing with the flooding.) This spring will be dangerous; it will hurt already vulnerable farmworkers hardest. That New Year flood I drove through—it killed three people. Already, 22 people have died in total during this season’s floods.

After 17 atmospheric rivers, a few bomb cyclones, and sundry other winter storms, even the relatively unscathed are understandably tired. ‘Like is this a thing now? Is this what we’re…are we Seattle?’ asked one Instagramer.

It’s a tough question to answer. Climate change means more water circling the atmosphere, but predicting whether California is trending toward or away from wet winters is still a challenge in climate modeling. Either way, adapting will be expensive.

Annie Dillard, back in the 1970s, wrote an essay called ‘Fecundity,’ in which the sheer muchness of the natural world became a frightening, alien thing. Millions of millions of barnacle eggs: the ocean nothing but a ‘broth of barnacle bits.’ Goldfish by the ton, aphids by the light-year. Abundance so vast as to become obscene.

I think about that essay a lot, because it no longer feels like we live in a time of ecological abundance. Life feels scarce: North American bird populations declined 30 percent since Dillard’s essay. Half a million insect species are at risk of extinction. Despite a few ‘drought-free’ years, California has been unusually dry for two decades. So has the entire American West.

I reread ‘Fecundity’ this morning. ‘The pressure of growth among animals is a kind of terrible hunger,’ Dillard wrote. As the natural world shrinks, our own fossil-fueled fecundity feels like the end state of Dillard’s nightmares. We are the animals, and our muchness is suffocating. Californians feed SUVs and Subarus at the pump, then sit in traffic on I-80 and on the 405, accelerating drought and deluge decade after decade in order to go play in the snow.

Now, an obscene amount of water waits in the hills. And yet: We will have water this summer. We are all responsible; we are all powerless. Ungodly numbers of gold-orange poppies bloom after the rain; miraculous numbers of gold-orange poppies bloom after the rain. Fecundity is a warning and a gift.

In an era of climate extremes, all weather bodes both horror and beauty. And: It’s snowing in Tahoe. As it did when I was a child, that makes me giddy.


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