Drought almost certain to continue, snow surveys suggest | TahoeDailyTribune.com

Drought almost certain to continue, snow surveys suggest

Isaac Brambila
Frank Gehrke of the California Department of Water Resources measures the water content in the snow during a snow survey Tuesday near Sierra-At-Tahoe Road.
Isaac Brambila/Tahoe Daily Tribune |

Had it not been for a couple of days of snowfall during the weekend, the ground would have been bare, Frank Gehrke of the Department of Water Resources said Tuesday during a snow survey at Philips Station near Sierra-At-Tahoe Road.

However, the weekend snowfall, roughly 13 inches accumulated below 7,000 feet and as much as 15 inches above that, did not save the day. Phillips station recorded 0.9 inches of water content in the snow, which represents 5 percent of the March 3 historical average for the site. None of the other three stations included in the DWR report recorded more than 1.5 inches of water content or 6 percent of the long-term average.

“The Sierra Nevada snowpack, which Californians rely on heavily during the dry summer months for their water needs, continues to disappoint this winter,” a DWR press release stated.

On Tuesday, because of the shallow snowpack, Gehrke veered from his usual method of individually measuring the snowpack in several points a few yards from each other and measured the snow from the different points in bulk.

“We’re kind of hovering … nudging up against the lowest snowpack on record,” he said.

The readings were in the range of the March numbers in 1991, the last drought resembling the current one. They were also close to the 1977 numbers, the lowest on record.

“In ’91 we had a very good March. But it doesn’t seem as though that’s going to happen this year,” Gehrke said.

The impact of the snowstorm the region saw last weekend will likely be, for the most part, insignificant. Most of the water content that came from the storm will likely soak into the ground and will yield little runoff.

“In general, conditions are very grim. We’re just not going to get significant storm activity to bring us out of the drought,” Gehrke said.

“The best we can hope for is some storm activity to at least give us a little bit of an increase in runoff from what were seeing with this extremely shallow snowpack that we have right now.”

The winter started well, with a relatively wet December that allowed the DWR to transport some water, but climate returned to the dry pattern that has been developing during the past four years.

In South Lake Tahoe, January was virtually dry, with only 0.1 inches of precipitation, and February only yielded 4.25 inches.

The weekend’s storm recorded 0.8 inches of precipitation.

Warm temperatures, which cause snow to melt faster, have also not helped. In February, 13 days broke the record for warmest temperature on record for their respective calendar dates. January had four record-breaking days. Additionally, both months also recorded their warmest days on record, 66 degrees on Jan. 25 and 65 degrees on Feb. 13.

In other parts of the Sierra, the readings were not as dismal. The central and southern Sierra readings were 5.5 inches (20 percent of average) and 5 inches (22 percent) respectively, according to the DWR press release.

Statewide, 103 electronic sensors found Tuesday’s snow water equivalent to be 5 inches, 19 percent of the March 3 multi-decade average. When DWR conducted the season’s first two manual surveys on Dec. 30 and Jan. 29, the statewide water content was 50 percent and 25 percent respectively of the historical averages for those dates.

Weeks of spring-like weather then produced more rain than snow when storms did arrive during California’s warmest winter on record, the press release read. California’s historically wettest winter months have already passed, and it’s almost certain the state will be in drought throughout 2015, for the fourth consecutive year.

“Unless this month approximates the 1991 “Miracle March” with significantly more precipitation than normal, the traditional wet season will end on April 1 with an alarmingly low amount of water stored in the mountains as snow,” the press release read.

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