Snow survey reveals good December but drought continues |

Snow survey reveals good December but drought continues

Isaac Brambila
Frank Gehrke, chief of the California Cooperative Snow Surveys Program, takes snow measurements during a survey Tuesday morning near Highway 50 and Sierra-At-Tahoe Road.
Isaac Brambila / Tahoe Daily Tribune |

There was fine snow blowing hard in the wind and traffic on Highway 50 was slow as chain control was in effect. Frank Gehrke, chief of the California Cooperative Snow Surveys Program with the Department of Water Resources (DWR), powered through nearly 2-feet of snow, trailed by several reporters, as he conducted the first manual snow survey of the Sierra snowpack for this winter on Tuesday at Phillips Station just off of Highway 50 near Sierra-At-Tahoe Road.

Snow had been falling all night and continued to fall, while in the South Shore everything was covered by snow.

“Well, contrary to appearances, the drought is still on,” Gehrke said as he tallied the measurements from the survey and announced them to media representatives.

The survey revealed a snow depth of 21.3 inches and 4 inches of water content, roughly 33 percent the long-term average.

“I suspect most of the snow we measured here today is fairly new snow,” he said. The previous hours of snowfall had accumulated more snow than Gehrke anticipated.

December was a fairly good month, Gehrke said. Precipitation this month was slightly better than during December last year, but California still has a long way to go before it can begin to consider it is recuperating from the drought.

“Obviously with these sorts of numbers there’s still tremendous concern over what is going to happen next summer,” he said.

“We don’t know what the rest of the winter is going to bring. But, unfortunately, the tendency seems to be where the first couple of weeks of January, at least right now, are forecasted to be dry and cold. Clearly the concern is that we’ll end up in the same pattern we had the last couple of years.”

He later added, “If it should, we’re obviously in considerable difficulty.”

The news was not all bad, however. The recent snow will at the very least help replenish groundwater reservoirs, though it will likely not cause much runoff, Gehrke said.

Phillips Station had better readings than during recent years’ early-January readings. Its lowest early-January water content reading was 0.1 inches in 2012, in a snow depth of only 0.6 inches. On January 3, 2014, Phillips Station had 2.3 inches of water content in 9.3 inches of snow.

Furthermore, DWR weather watchers note that it’s early in the season with plenty of time for the snowpack to build, the press release stated. The concern, however, is that irrigation-dependent San Joaquin Valley farms and some other areas will be hard hit if Water Year 2015 ends as the fourth full year of drought.

Still, California will need several important storms to show any sign of progress Gerkhe told reporters.

Statewide, 105 electronic sensors in the Sierra detected a snow water equivalent of 4.8 inches, 50 percent of the multi-year average for December 30, according to a DWR press release.

Generally, California’s snowpack supplies about a third of the water needed by the state’s residents, agriculture and industry as it melts in the late spring and summer.

Electronic readings Tuesday indicated that water content in the northern mountains was 57 percent of normal for the date and 20 percent of the average on April 1, when the snowpack normally is at its peak before the spring melt. Readings in the central Sierra showed 45 percent of normal for the date and 16 percent of the April 1 average. The numbers for the southern Sierra were 48 percent of average for the date and 15 percent of the April 1 average.

Overall, the Sierras reflected numbers roughly 50 percent of the average, Gehrke said.

“We’re really going to need a lot of snow,” Gehrke said. “A lot more snow.”

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