Snowpack improves, but upcoming months will determine if drought persists |

Snowpack improves, but upcoming months will determine if drought persists

Adam Jensen
Adam Jensen / Tahoe Daily TribuneFrank Gehrke, chief of the California Cooperative Snow Survey, measures the water content of the snowpack near Sierra-at-Tahoe on Friday morning.

SOUTH LAKE TAHOE, Calif. – January snowstorms brought encouraging news to California state water managers on Friday, but it’s too early to tell how far this winter’s snowpack could go to bolster state water supplies.

California Department of Water Resources staff measured 67.8 inches of snow at Phillips Station, near the entrance to Sierra-at-Tahoe, on Friday morning. The snow contained the equivalent of 20.2 inches of water, about 106 percent of the long-term average for the area, according to California Cooperative Snow Survey data.

California’s mountain snowpack sits at about 115 percent of normal for this time of year, according to the data.

This month’s results were encouraging compared to December measurements which showed the state’s snowpack contained just 85 percent of its historic water content for that time of year, said Frank Gehrke, chief of the California Cooperative Snow Survey, at Phillips Station Friday.

But, with northern Nevada and California in need of a big snowfall year to emerge from three years of drought, the next three months are really going to be what counts, Gehrke said. February, March and April can be “very good producers” of snowfall, Gehrke said.

“We’re heading towards something like an average year, unfortunately that won’t return us to full reservoir storage,” Gehrke said.

Roughly half of the past 10 years that had average snowpacks at this time of year ended up being below-average snow years and about half ended up being above average snow years, Gehrke said.

“Now were waiting to see what the rest of the season brings to see if we have an above or below average snow year,” Gehrke said.

The amount of snow in the Central Sierra, which includes the Lake Tahoe area, is lagging behind both the northerly and southerly portions of the mountain range. Water content in the Southern Sierra was at 121 percent of normal on Friday and the Northern Sierra is boasting “some pretty impressive snow depths” with water content in that portion of the range sitting at 131 percent of the long-term average, Gehrke said.

Early projections by the Department of Water Resources indicated the agency would only be able to deliver 5 percent of requested State Water Project water this year, reflecting low storage levels, ongoing drought conditions, and environmental restrictions on water deliveries to protect fish species. The agency will recalculate the allocation after current snow survey results and other conditions are evaluated, according to a statement released Friday.

“Today’s snow survey offers us some cautious optimism as we continue to play catch-up with our statewide water supplies,” said Sue Sims, department of water resources chief deputy director, in the statement. “We are still looking at the real possibility of a fourth dry year. Even if California is blessed with a healthy snowpack, we must learn to always conserve this finite resource so that we have enough water for homes, farms, and businesses in 2010 and in the future.”

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