‘Typical’ start to winter snowfall disappointing to state water managers
December 31, 2009
SOUTH LAKE TAHOE, Calif. – Regardless of the snow falling on state water watchers Wednesday morning, the outlook for California’s drought stricken reservoirs remains less than optimistic.
Frank Gehrke, chief of the California Cooperative Snow Survey, and John Deam, a water resources engineering associate with the California Department of Water Resources, concluded the first round of statewide snow surveys at Phillips Station on Wednesday morning.
The snow surveyors found the 38.5 inches of snow at Phillips station – near the entrance of Sierra at Tahoe ski resort – contained the equivalent of 9 inches of water, about 75 percent of normal for the area at this time of year.
The measurement is a familiar one to snow surveyors.
“What we’re finding this year is really close to last year at the same time and same location,” Gehrke said.
The surveyors measured 30.3 inches of snow at Echo Summit. The snow there contained the equivalent of 7.1 inches of water, just 57 percent of the long term average. Gehrke attributed the lack of snow at Echo Summit, just down the road from Phillips Station, on wind blowing snow from the more exposed area.
Statewide the water content of the Sierra Nevada snowpack is 85 percent of normal, with snow depths increasing as southward along the Sierra Nevada. Last year at this time, the water content of the statewide snowpack was at about 76 percent of the long term average, according to DWR records.
“It’s a reasonable start,” Gehrke said. “It’s a typical California start to winter.”
But “typical” is not what state water managers are looking for after three consecutive years of drought.
“Despite some recent storms, today’s snow survey shows that we’re still playing catch-up when it comes to our statewide water supplies,” said DWR’s Chief Deputy Director Sue Sims in a statement released Wednesday. “Looking at the real possibility of a fourth dry year, we must prepare now, conserve now and act now, so that we have enough water for homes, farms and businesses in 2010 and in the future.”
Although the snowpack will likely increase into April and it’s still too early to tell whether this year’s snowfall will pull California out of drought conditions, Gehrke said he didn’t think it was likely.
“It’s going to have to be either a humongous year or a series of above average years,” Gehrke said.
There is “some indication” that the climate phenomenon known as El Nino, where water temperatures rise in the Eastern Pacific Ocean, is getting stronger, Gehrke said. El Nino conditions can create above average precipitation for California, but they’re no guarantee, Gehrke said.
And this year’s El Nino is developing later in the usual, making its effects on snowfall particularly unpredictable.
“Just what that portends remains to be seen,” Gehrke said.
He said talk of a high pressure system moving over California this weekend is concerning. Although there are some indications that a high pressure ridge could develop over California by the end of the weekend, there are also signs that the ridge won’t be strong enough to prevent several weak storm systems from moving through the Lake Tahoe region next week, said Mark Fawcett a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Reno.
If the weak systems do materialize, they would likely be similar to the storms that dropped several inches of snow at the South Shore during he past week, Fawcett said.
Strong high pressure systems scuttled hopes of snowmelt refilling the state’s reservoirs last year.