Miracle March saved ski season, helped battle seven-year drought
Ryan Summerlin March 11, 2008
Skiers were depressed in the winter, as were boaters in the summer.
During the seven-year drought that started in 1987, Tahoe residents felt downtrodden, and it was worse for farmers in the San Joaquin Valley and water consumers in Reno, Sacramento and the Bay Area.
The 1990-91 season was on course to be the driest winter ever. That was, until Miracle March arrived.
On the first day of the month, a blizzard hit the Sierra Nevada. It continued the next day and the next, bringing 50 inches of powder to ski resorts, which had been ready to throw in the towel on another lousy season.
“I don’t remember if it snowed every day, but we sure had some long stretches,” said longtime South Shore resident John Simon. “I remember watching the fence behind my house disappear.”
Fallen Leaf Lake received 13 inches, 867 percent of an average March.
Here’s a look at some of the March headlines in the Tahoe Daily Tribune that year:
— “Mother Nature throws resorts a life preserver,” March 8
— “Snow keeps falling, resorts celebrate,” March 13
— “A white blessing,” March 15
— “It keeps coming,” March 19
— “It just keeps dumping,” March 22
John and Judy Breylanger, who had a second home atop Kingsbury Grade, had given up on winter and their season pass at Heavenly Mountain Resort and headed to San Diego.
“Everybody was despondent because we didn’t have much snow,” John Breylanger said. “Then we heard about that Miracle March, so we turned around and came back. We had a mountain of snow and quite a walkway to clear.”
Erika Hansen hadn’t skied all season until March, of which she took full advantage. She remembers the years when Lake Tahoe was low and the beaches were vast.
“You’d walk out, and it would get as high as your knees and you could just walk forever,” she said.
The drought began in winter 1987; on Sept. 14, 1990, the water had dropped below Lake Tahoe’s rim. It didn’t get back up to its rim, elevation 6,223 feet, until May 26, 1993, according to Gary Barbato, a hydrologist with the National Weather Service in Reno.
The Miracle March of 1991 did not end the drought, but it did prevent catastrophic water shortages in the West.
There also was a less-publicized Miracle March in 1989, which allowed the Sierra to have a better-than-average year. The percent of average snow-water equivalents from the beginning of the drought were: 46 percent in 1986-87; 55 percent in 1987-88; 118 percent in 1988-89; 77 percent in 1989-90; and 68 percent in 1990-91. Entering March 1991, the snow-water equivalent for the snow year was just 15 percent of average.
If not for Miracle March, “it would have been curtains,” Barbato said. “Somebody up there was looking out for us.”
There was also was hardly any flooding during this miraculous March. The early storms were warm, but the rest of the time it was very cold, which allowed for manageable spring runoff.
On March 26, the Tribune’s Jennifer Coverdale wrote: “March snowfall won’t solve the drought, but it’s bringing the Lake Tahoe Basin out of ‘catastrophic’ conditions that threatened to prevent runoff into regional watersheds, according to U.S. Soil Conservation Services snow surveyors who removed 1991 from the driest-in-history status, wedging it between the droughts of 1976-77.”
The lake was at its all-time lowest on Nov. 30, 1992, when it was nearly 3 feet below the rim. The drought officially continued until fall 1994. The water level has occasionally dipped below the rim since that time, but not since Jan. 11, 2005.