Memories of "Miracle March"
Remember Lake Tahoe’s winter of 1990 and 1991?
Little snow fell, and the early-January snowpack measurement revealed just 5 inches of water content, about 42 percent of average.
February didn’t improve – still only 5 inches of water content and now 25 percent of average.
The March 1 measurement rolled around – 3 inches of water content, and the snowpack was at an abysmal 12 percent of normal.
Then it snowed. And snowed. And snowed.
The April 1 measurement showed 20 inches of water content in the snow, 71 percent of normal for that time of year.
What became known as the “Miracle March” in 1991 underscores the unpredictable nature of snow in the Sierra. And it shows how quickly Old Man Winter can change his attitude.
“The beginning of March (1991) was terrible, but it received enough snow not to bring it to average – but real close,” said Pierre Stephens, water supply forecaster for the California Department of Water Resources. “The chances of receiving snow that size in one month is slim.”
Jim Ashby, climatologist for the Western Regional Climate Center, said no long-term data exists for how much South Shore received that month, but Tahoe City got 75 inches and Truckee received 105.
“That was an amazing month. It basically saved the year,” he said. “The precipitation total for that month was 12.96 at Tahoe City. Before that, from July 1990 to February ’91, those eight months had a total of 6.13 inches. March did double what it took eight months to do.”
Sierra-at-Tahoe Sales Manager Sean Sweeney remembers the event well. Business was slow, and the resort was down to a skeleton-crew staff.
“Just off my memory, it seemed like we got at least 4 to 6 feet. It was a lot of snow, not just a few inches. It just continued to come down,” Sweeney said. “I think it snowed 15 or 16 days of the month, maybe 18.
“The attitude around here – we were all waiting to get some good powder, and we finally got it, too.”
Malcolm Tibbetts, Heavenly Ski Resort vice president of mountain operations, has similar memories.
“It was one of those seasons where it was just pretty sparse. Then for the last third of the season it just dumped on us,” said Tibbetts, a 29-year Heavenly employee. “It was like, ‘Hallelujah.'”
Now that the region is starting into winter looking just as scarce, state water officials say it’s important to remember the fickle nature of winter weather. It may be unlikely that Tahoe’s snowpack ever reaches 100 percent this year, but it is also unlikely that every month will be as snow-free as December was.
“Standing where we are now, there’s probably one chance in five that we will get enough to be average or above average,” said Stephens, of the California Department of Water Resources. “I’m not saying there’s an 80-percent chance (the winter) will be extremely dry, just somewhat dryer than normal.”
The early-January measurement at a benchmark location near Echo Summit this year showed about 3 inches of water content, about 24 percent of normal for this time of year.
One of the wettest years in recent decades was 1983, when the April count was more than 200 percent of normal. In contrast, however, the winter of 1976 was one of the worst. The January measurement was about 25 percent of normal; the end-of-season snowpack was about 39 percent of normal.
“It’s still early to tell this season,” Stephens said.
Inches of water content in snow comparing one of the wettest years, one of the driest, this year and 1991, the year of the “Miracle March.”
Jan. 1 Feb. 1 March 1 April 1
Average 12 20 25 28
1976 (dry) 3 6 8 11
1983 (wet) 23 34 56 62
1991 5 5 3 20
2000 3 – – –
Source: California Department of Water Resources
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