Meager Sierra snow worries Calif. water managers
February 1, 2012
ECHO SUMMIT, Calif. (AP) – An announcement Wednesday that California’s Sierra Nevada snowpack is a meager 15 inches in some places means bad news in a state dependent upon snowmelt to meet the water needs of 25 million people.
Resorts are suffering as skiers turn up their noses at manmade snow, especially after last year’s prolific powder. And farmers are bracing for a tough summer.
The dry winter is much the same in the Rocky Mountains, where the snowpack remains below average in Utah and Colorado, and at least one death has been attributed to the dearth of fluff. Skier Asha Davenport, 19, fell off a chairlift on Sunday at Utah’s Park City’s Canyons resort after suffering a seizure.
“She probably hit rock-hard snow,” said Beau Uriona, a federal hydrologist based in Salt Lake City. “If you land on soft snow, it’s certainly going to help you out.”
Officials are not hopeful the region has time to rebound.
“The probability of getting back to average is really low” this far into the winter, said Randy Julander, the Utah Snow Survey supervisor. “January doubled our snowpack and we loved that, but we’re getting back into dry, warm weather.”
Paltry snow means big worries this summer for California farmers in the Central Valley who depend on snowmelt delivered through aqueducts to irrigate the most prolific agricultural region in the nation.
Electronic measurements estimate the statewide snowpack at 37 percent of normal for this time of year and 23 percent of the average April 1 reading when the spring thaw starts. The 15 inches measured at Echo Summit near South Lake Tahoe contained just 3.8 inches of water.
“This is a little misleading because we only got most of the snow in the last few days and a couple of inches last night,” said Frank Tehrke, chief of snow survey for the California Department of Water Resources. “It’s not encouraging for our reservoirs this summer.”
The monthly snowpack measurements are anticipated by water managers and users around the state, and Tehrke described it as one of the top three driest since the department began taking measurements in 1946.
“So far, we just haven’t received a decent number of winter storms,” DWR Director Mark Cowin said in a statement. He was more pessimistic than he had been a month earlier when he said that “we still have most of our winter ahead of us.”
After an encouraging start in October, the Sierra has benefited from just a handful of storms, with none producing the snowfall that state water managers want. Squaw Valley Resort recorded a cumulative 85 inches of snow so far this year, below its average of 450 inches and nowhere near the 810 inches recorded in last year’s bountiful blanketing.
But last year’s snow means the state’s reservoirs remain nearly full after several years of drought. Lake Shasta, the state’s largest, is at 100 percent of its normal storage for this time of year, though it’s only at 68 percent capacity. San Luis Reservoir, the biggest south of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, is at 121 percent of average and 96 percent capacity.
Agencies that supply water to more than 25 million Californians and nearly a million acres of farmland requested slightly more than 4 million acre-feet of water this year. The Department of Water Resources has stuck with its estimate that it will be able to deliver 60 percent of the amount this year. Last year, the department was able to deliver 80 percent of the requested amount.
The prediction for state water deliveries is still far above the drought years of 2007 to 2010, when as little as 35 percent of the water requested could be delivered.
In Southern California, inland water agencies stored a record 78,000 acre feet of water in underground aquifers last year – enough to supply 300,000 people for a year. The rest of region’s water needs are filled with water imported from the north.
Farmers connected through a federal system of aqueducts in the Central Valley are waiting to learn how much water they will be allocated by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, which also relies on snowpack for its deliveries.
Westlands Water District, with more than 600,000 acres of farmland dependent upon imported water, is planning for less than half of what its contracts promise.
“We’re doing the rain dance as much as we can out here,” said spokeswoman Gayle Holman.
Associated Press reporter Paul Foy in Salt Lake City contributed to this report.