TAHOE/TRUCKEE — While weeks of mostly sunny skies have already told the tale, state water managers made this year's sub-par winter official Wednesday by measuring meager amounts of snow at Echo Summit.
California Department of Water Resources staff measured 15.6 inches of snow at Phillips Station, near the entrance to Sierra-at-Tahoe Ski Resort, Wednesday morning.
The snow contained the equivalent of 3.8 inches of water, just 19 percent of the long-term average for the snow survey site at this time of year.
The measurements make 2012 the second driest year for the site since the Department of Water Resources began keeping records in 1946, according to a Wednesday statement from the agency.
Last year at this time, snow surveyors measured the equivalent of 28.4 inches of water in the snowpack at Phillips Station, more than seven times what was on the ground this week.
“We're way below average,” said Frank Gehrke, chief of the California Cooperative Snow Survey program, following Wednesday's measurements.
This winter season has been similar to 1958, but not as bad as 1963, when “pretty much all of the snow courses had no snow,” Gehrke added.
Snow survey sites within the Lake Tahoe Basin faired slightly better than the Echo Summit site, with measurement sites running between 26 and 48 percent of their long-term averages, according to Natural Resources Conservation Service data.
The few inches of snow that fell Wednesday was a “little quirk” that may give area ski resorts a boost, but served to obscure the true conditions in the Sierra Nevada as far as water goes, Gehrke said.
Low snow measurements have been made throughout the mountain range. Statewide readings show the water content of the snowpack at 37 percent of normal.
And there is little hope of change through the end of February.
“We're probably looking at another dry month in February,” Gehrke said.
There is a slight chance of snow Tuesday, but a storm moving over the Pacific Ocean is expected to split as it reaches the West Coast and not bring much precipitation to the Lake Tahoe Basin, according to a Thursday forecast from the National Weather Service in Reno.
“Bottom line ... not expecting a big storm here,” according to the forecast. “Chances of snow are marginal, and splitting troughs are very uncertain. Even it does come directly through the Sierra, snow amounts won't be heavy. After Wednesday, high pressure moves in again over the western states, with dry weather likely to carry through mid-February.”
Mountain snow provides approximately one-third of the water for California's households and farms, and the lack of snow has concerned the state's water managers.
The Department of Water Resources estimates the State Water Project will be able to deliver 60 percent of the more than 4 million acre-feet of water requested by 29 public agencies.
The estimate is largely based on carryover reservoir storage and may change depending on the amount of snow that falls through the end of the winter.
“So far, we just haven't received a decent number of winter storms,” said Department of Water Resources Director Mark Cowin in Wednesday's statement. “We have good reservoir storage thanks to wet conditions last year, but we also need more rain and snow this winter.”