TAHOE/TRUCKEE - Frank Gehrke skied into the middle of a clearing in Phillips station Wednesday to take measurements for the California Department of Water Resources' first snow survey of the year.
And unlike last January, there was actually snow to measure.
Gehrke, chief of the California Cooperative Snow Surveys, recorded 12.1 inches of water content in about 4 feet of snow, just above average for this time of year at the station near Echo Summit.
"All this snow is a nice seasonal present. Last year we could only find .14 inches of water content so you can see the huge difference between this year and what we had on the ground last year," he said.
The water outlook across the state looks much rosier than it did in January 2012. Water content in California's mountain snowpack is at 134 percent of average for this time of year, and 49 percent of the April 1 average - typically the snowpack's peak.
Snow surveys like the one Gehrke conducted Wednesday help the Department of Water Resources predict spring runoff. Snowpack usually provides about a third of the state's water as it melts in the spring and early summer, according to a DWR release.
But just because the January survey recorded high water content, it doesn't mean California will be drought-free this summer.
"We are off to a good water supply start for the new year, but we have to remember that we have seen wet conditions suddenly turn dry more than once," DWR spokesman Ted Thomas said.
Gehrke said the early season often experiences a "January lull" - the mountain equivalent of the doldrums where a dry period follows December's heavy snows. That lull can determine if the state has a good or moderate water year ahead.
There's no guarantee that the Sierra will be inflicted with a low-snow start to 2013, but the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association forecast Thursday a dry week ahead with only a slight chance of precipitation for South Lake Tahoe.
The DWR estimates that it will deliver 40 percent of the water requested to supply 25 million Californians and about a million acres of irrigated farmland, according to a release. That estimate will likely increase throughout the winter.
The final allocation of water last year was 65 percent of the requested amount, while the last 100 percent allocation occurred in 2006.
Lake Oroville and Lake Shasta - both important water-storage reservoirs for California - are both above average for the date. -
The January snow surveys at Phillips started more than 100 years ago, during which time officials have collected a series of data points that Gehrke said doesn't hint of a warming climate.
"Honestly, we don't see much of a trend. The fact that we had hardly any snow at this location last year shows how much things can change," he said.