Snowpack still over 100 percent
PHILLIPS — The snowpack has dropped somewhat since a roaring December, but the season isn’t a total wash, California water officials said Wednesday.
The American River Basin snowpack taken from the entrance of Sierra-at-Tahoe and U.S. Highway 50 was measured that afternoon at 56 inches. The water content read 25.4 inches — 102 percent of average.
Almost a month ago, the water content measured 126 percent of average. This tally declined from 172 percent recorded in the first week of January.
“February wasn’t a complete bust, but it certainly didn’t come on as strong (as other months),” said Frank Gehrke, state Department of Water Resources chief of snow surveys.
The hydrologist said he wasn’t surprised by the outcome, given the declining amount of precipitation in February in comparison to other months. The second month of the year is traditionally one of the wettest of winter.
The snowpack measured 65.6 inches at this time last year, despite a dismal level overall. The water content read 18.9 inches at 77 percent of average. By the time the year ended in May 2001, the snowpack measured 37 percent with the water content nudging close to half of average.
Water officials are trying to make up ground, coming out of lackluster years.
A decade ago, the low level of precipitation and subsequent runoff resulted in dire consequences for the state of the water supply.
In the wake of this winter’s strong December, the state may still see a record year. So agricultural, hydroelectric and recreational interests can take solace in the good seasonal start, the hydrologists said as they took 50-foot measurements on cross country skis. They get an average from seven readings.
The mountain snowpack supplies two-thirds of the water content for cities, farms and recreational outlets.
“If it started out as dry as it’s been, people would have been tearing their hair out,” Gehrke said.
Gehrke and Hart, the agency’s field activities coordinator, plan to return to the region for two more surveys ending in May.
They will post an updated water report forecasting runoff on March 7.
The climate appears to be in line with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s seasonal forecast of wide variances between dry and wet days.
NOAA pulled back its prediction that El Ni-o may occur in early March, to later in the year. Still, there’s no guarantee the tropical weather phenomenon will bring an above average precipitation year, although traditionally the Lake Tahoe Basin has experienced more moisture in those years.
An above average water year is needed to receive an average amount of runoff — especially with dry soil from previous years, water officials say.
In a normal March, hydrologists look for 5 or 6 inches of precipitation.
“It’s not looking like a great year, unless we go gangbusters in March. If we don’t get it in March, we’re pretty much done,” said Gary Barbato, a hydrologist at the National Weather Service in Reno.
Barbato said the water supply off the Truckee River on the eastern slope of the Sierra Nevada should be OK because of the reservoirs. But the Carson and Walker rivers may suffer because of a lack of storage.
He predicts a season ending at 80 percent of average.
The water level of Lake Tahoe is currently at 6,224.2 feet, 0.04 higher than three weeks ago, Barbato reported. Rim level is 6,223 feet.