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It's too soon to worry about drought, despite dry winter

The Los Angeles skyline is seen through burned trees on Dec. 14, 2017, after a brush fire erupted in the hills in Elysian Park in Los Angeles. Damian Dovarganes/AP

California water officials on Wednesday confirmed with manual measurements what electronic sensors have been saying for weeks: the state’s largest drinking water reservoir – the Sierra Nevada snowpack – is well below its average water content for this time of year.

But water managers say it's too early for worries that California is sliding back into drought.

Water officials carried out the first of their regular winter snow measurements, plunging rods into snowpacks to gauge the snow depth.

The measurement at Phillips Station east of Sacramento was less than half an inch in snow water equivalent. That’s about 3 percent of normal for this time of year.

Already, a network of more than 100 electronic sensors has shown the statewide average is more than three-quarters below average.  

Water managers traditionally use the manual snowpack measurements to acquaint Californians with the state of the water supply. It's a crucial question in a semi-arid state with the U.S.'s biggest state economy, agricultural industry and population. In a normal year, nearly one-third of Southern Californians' water supply starts as snow in the Sierras.

Southern California wildfires that grew to the biggest in state history in December — normally the rainy season in California — already have made clear the bottom line: The state is far drier than normal so far this winter.

 “As we’re only a third of the way through California’s three wettest months, it’s far too early to draw any conclusions about what kind of season we’ll have this year,” said Grant Davis director of the state Department of Water Resources. “California’s great weather variability means we can go straight from a dry year to a wet year and back again to dry.”

"We're back in the old waiting game," said DWR spokesman Doug Carlson said.

Southern California water managers aren’t worried, yet. Near-record rainfall last year unleashed widespread flooding and snapped a historic five-year drought. The wet 2017 allowed Gov. Jerry Brown in April to lift a drought emergency declaration that had brought mandatory water conservation orders for cities and towns. And it allowed the Metropolitan Water District, which imports water to 19 million Southern Californians, to bank an enormous amount of water in reservoirs and groundwater storage throughout the region.

“We’re well prepared if we swing into a dry cycle,” said MWD’s chief operating officer Deven Upadhyay.

This year, meteorologists point to a strengthening La Niña weather pattern in the Pacific, which typically brings drier weather. People in California's southwest last felt any significant rain in February, the National Weather Service noted this week. Los Angeles is marking a record dry spell, with rainfall just 9 percent of normal for the past 10 months, the weather service said.

Upadhyay said during dry years in California, MWD can also draw on water from the Colorado River, which normally provides a quarter of Southern California’s water supply. But currently that river’s headwaters, the Rocky Mountains, are also experiencing lower than average snowfall: snow water content is just 63 percent of normal.

It's not time to despair, yet, Carlson said. California normally receives half its rain between December and February.

"Our message to the public [...] is it's still very early in the season," Carlson said. "Anything could happen."

This story is part of Elemental: Covering Sustainability, a new multimedia collaboration between Cronkite News, Arizona PBS, KJZZ, KPCC, Rocky Mountain PBS and PBS SoCal.