Snow survey reflects dismal January |

Snow survey reflects dismal January

Isaac Brambila
Frank Gehrke, Chief of the California Cooperative Snow Surveys Program, with the Department of Water Resources, takes snow measurements for a snow survey last Thursday morning.
Isaac Brambila / Tahoe Daily Tribune |

A virtually dry January was reflected bleakly in the results of the second manual snow survey at Phillips station Thursday morning.

“The absence of precipitation in January, normally California’s wettest month, has combined with warmer-than-average temperatures to produce a dismally meager snowpack for a drought-stricken state,” a Department of Water Resources press release stated.

“We had a pretty decent start in December and then it just fell apart,” Frank Gehrke, chief of the California Cooperative Snow Surveys Program with the Department of Water Resources, said after conducting the survey.

Gehrke, under a bright summer morning and among visible patches of soil in the snow and large areas of dry dirt surrounding the site, measured only 7.1 inches of snow depth and 2.3 inches of water content at the station near the Sierra-At-Tahoe Road and Highway 50 intersection. The measurement reflected 12 percent of the long-term average and a drop from the first manual measurement of the winter on Dec. 30.

“Clearly not good news. January basically had, in many areas, zero-precipitation. We actually lost water,” he added. “That’s generally what we’re seeing across the state.”
Frank Gehrke
Chief of the California Cooperative Snow Surveys Program

“Clearly not good news,” Gehrke said. “January basically had, in many areas, zero precipitation.”

“We actually lost water,” he added. “That’s generally what we’re seeing across the state.”

Though, during his roughly 30 years conducting the survey Gehrke has seen drastically different measurements at the Phillips site, he said normally in January the site would have about 5 feet of snow depth.

During the Dec. 30 survey, there was 21.3 inches of snow and 4 inches of water content. With the exception of a few hours of snow on Tuesday, the area had not received any snow since late December.

“None of this goes well for really any improvement in water supply conditions,” Gehrke said.

As Tahoe gets closer to spring and the sun keeps climbing higher in the sky, the snow will continue to melt at a faster rate, Gehrke said. At this time, much of the snow on the ground is also evaporating and not melting into the ground. The current conditions are also limiting runoff from snowmelt, reducing the feed of water to reservoirs and making the situation grim for most if not all reservoirs.

“We’re not going to break the drought this year. Period,” he said.

“We need basically big storms to even have a chance … to at least have some increase in reservoir storage.”

Though the measurements Thursday were slightly better than reading around the same time last year, the situation continues to be negative.

“When we’re down at 10-12 percent, slightly isn’t worth much,” Gehrke said.

Statewide, the snow water equivalent as measured by more than 100 sensors was 4 inches, or 25 percent of the historical average, according to the DWR press release. Those numbers are also down from the Dec. 30 readings when the statewide snow water equivalent was 50 percent of that date’s long-term average.

Other stations manually measured Thursday also recorded negative numbers. Alpha station had 11 percent its long-term average, Lyons Creek recorded 20 percent its average and Tamarack Flat recorded 14 percent of its average.

In normal years, the snowpack supplies about 30 percent of California’s water needs as it melts in the spring and early summer, the DWR stated. The greater the snowpack water content, the greater the likelihood California’s reservoirs will receive ample runoff to meet the state’s water demand in the summer and fall.

Lake Oroville in Butte County, the State Water Project’s (SWP) principal reservoir, currently holds 41 percent of its 3.5 million acre-foot capacity. Shasta Lake, north of Redding, California’s and the federal Central Valley Project’s (CVP) largest reservoir, is at 44 percent of its 4.5 million acre-foot capacity. San Luis Reservoir, a critical south-of-Delta pool for both the SWP and CVP, is faring better due to recent water deliveries to the reservoir as a component of the agencies’ drought management strategy. San Luis holds 53 percent of its 2 million acre-foot capacity.

State Climatologist Michael Anderson told the DWR that to have a chance at ending the drought, California would have to record precipitation that is at least 150 percent of normal by the end of the water year on September 30, or 75 inches. As of Thursday, 23.1 inches had been recorded.

By the end of the survey Thursday, Gehrke had practically nothing good to say about the results.

“The signs just are not good,” he said.

Support Local Journalism

Support Local Journalism

Readers around the Lake Tahoe Basin and beyond make the Tahoe Tribune's work possible. Your financial contribution supports our efforts to deliver quality, locally relevant journalism.

Now more than ever, your support is critical to help us keep our community informed about the evolving coronavirus pandemic and the impact it is having locally. Every contribution, however large or small, will make a difference.

Your donation will help us continue to cover COVID-19 and our other vital local news.