Western Snowpack Levels Near Historic Norms So Far

Ben Faulkinberry

As of early March, snowpack levels in the Western United States are largely hovering near historic median values, despite a strong El Niño kicking off winter with ample precipitation.

snowpack-collage

Snowpack is crucial not only to providing water for consumption, but also to providing hydroelectricity. As the snow melts later in the year, its runoff provides the water volumes needed to keep the region’s hydropower resources spinning, and therefore supplying inexpensive baseload power to the grid.

When snowpack levels fall short in a given year and hydropower resources subsequently underperform, the lost generation capacity can be mostly offset with natural gas-fueled generation. This creates a situation which can increase exposure to any natural gas price volatility that may be occurring at the time. Ratepayers in California paid an estimated $1.4B more for electricity over 2011-2014 due to natural gas generation offsetting lower hydropower generation levels.

The Sierra Nevada Range in California is being watched particularly closely this year as the state continues to grapple with a severe multi-year drought. In April of last year, California Governor Jerry Brown made headlines by enacting mandatory water reductions following the lowest snowpack levels ever recorded.

Mountain Snowpack

There is still time this year for snowpack levels to shift significantly in either direction. As more storms are expected to inundate the Pacific Coast, and with an El Niño still going strong, the future of this year’s snow levels is very much up in the air.

Browse historic snowpack levels on the National Water and Climate Center website.

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The information in this page is offered only for general informational and educational purposes. It is not offered as and does not constitute legal advice.

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