Alan Riquelmy

PHILLIPS STATION, Calif. (CN) — There’s a structure that stands near a snow survey point at Phillips Station, off Highway 50 near South Lake Tahoe.

This time last year it was partially covered in snow. On Tuesday, snow levels reached nowhere near that high.

“Obviously, our snowpack is still below average,” said Sean de Guzman with the Department of Water Resources. “We’re only at halfway of where we need to be at this time of year.”

Tuesday was the second snow survey conducted by de Guzman’s department this year. He and others trudged through snow in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, measuring snow depth and water content.

There are about 260 spots throughout the state like Phillips Station, where people manually measure snowpack. There are another 130 automated sensors that transmit information electronically to the water resources department.

Current totals are dwarfed by the massive snowfall from last winter.

On Tuesday, snowpack at Phillips Station was at 29 inches, or 58% of average. Compared to the April 1 average — considered to be the height of the snowpack — Tuesday’s measurement came in at 41% of average.

This time last year the snowpack topped 85.5 inches, or 193% of average for the date and 137% of an average April 1.

Statewide, Tuesday’s snowpack clocked in at 8.4 inches, compared to 34.8 inches this time last year.

“Much less snow compared to last year,” said David Rizzardo, with the water resources department, during a press conference about the snow survey. “Last year was extremely wet.”

Getting rain and snow earlier in the rain year, which starts Oct. 1, is critical. It primes the watershed. When it comes later, it sits on “thirsty soil.”

This rain year, some snow accumulation occurred in December, but good snowfall didn't occur until this month.

Rizzardo noted that it’s an El Niño year and storms are warmer, meaning they bring more rain as opposed to snow. One storm at the right place and right time can bring flooding, like San Diego recently saw, de Guzman said.

Precipitation this past weekend brought the fourth rainiest day to San Diego since 1850, he added.

“This year’s El Niño has delivered below average precipitation and an even smaller snowpack,” said Karla Nemeth, director of the Department of Water Resources, in a statement. “Californians must prepare for all possible conditions during the remaining months of the rainy season.”

About half of the state’s annual rainfall comes from December through February, and 90% falls between Oct. 1 and April 1.

The snowpack in the Sierra accounts for about 30% of the state’s water needs. It’s been called a “frozen reservoir,” as its water only enters rivers and streams — and state reservoirs — when it begins to melt.

The state’s biggest reservoir, Lake Oroville, stood at 76% of total capacity on Tuesday.

California only has about four weeks remaining before the spigot in the sky starts to close.

Before that, forecasters say the Golden State is in for some wet weather.

Donner Summit — around 7,200 feet on Interstate 80, near Truckee — could get over 2 feet of snow from Wednesday through Friday. Echo Summit — at almost 7,400 feet on Highway 50, in the area of Phillips Station — could get 1½ feet over the same time period.

“It’s still an open question whether we get enough storms to get back to average,” said Michael Anderson, a state climatologist with the water resources department.

The next snow survey is set for late February.

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