Snowpack survives near-record dry spell
This year’s spring runoff should be at least average in the Tahoe Basin, despite near-record dry weather the last two months that reduced the snowpack dramatically, water officials said Tuesday.
“The Tahoe Basin will probably end up with an above-average or average runoff,” said Dan Greenlee, a hydrologist with the federal Natural Resources Conservation Services.
He made the prediction despite weather that turned an exceptional water year into a lackluster one. The last two months were the second driest February-March periods in the Tahoe Basin since 1931, according to the basin’s oldest weather records maintained at Tahoe City.
Tahoe City’s precipitation total of 1.77 inches for the two months was only wetter than the .64 inches registered in the same two months in 1988, the first winter of a six-year drought. South Lake Tahoe was even drier, with total precipitation at Lake Tahoe Airport just under an inch.
In a typical year, Tahoe City receives more than 9 inches of precipitation in February and March.
The near-record dry spell followed the wettest two months on record at Lake Tahoe, with 36.53 inches of precipitation recorded at Tahoe City.
April 1 is the date when the Sierra snowpack traditionally reaches its maximum depth, and the date when hydrologist begin making predictions on the basin’s runoff and the expected rise in Lake Tahoe’s level.
But this winter’s variable weather has complicated the job, Greenlee said.
“It’s made the forecast really tough,” he said. “October through early December was fairly wet, and then all of a sudden we got this tremendous snowfall before Christmas and intense rains after the New Year. Then, beginning in the middle of January, we got absolutely nothing.”
According to the California Water Resources Department, the snowpack in the Sierra Nevada had shriveled to 91 percent of average for the date last week. According to automated Snowtel readings, the federal Natural Resources Conservation Services estimated the snowpack remaining in the Tahoe Basin represented 93 percent of the seasonal average on Monday.
A month earlier, water officials had measured a snowpack that was twice as wet as an average year.
While the snowpack continues to retreat, abundant ground moisture after three wet winters should guarantee an abundant runoff in the Tahoe Basin, Greenlee explained. He will issue the first lake level forecast later this week.
If the runoff is average, Lake Tahoe should have sufficient storage capacity, said federal Water Master Garry Stone.
“We’re right in the ballpark,” Stone said.
On Tuesday, the lake’s surface was at an elevation of 6,227.79 feet – 1.31 feet from the maximum storage level. The lake rises about 1.4 feet in an average year.
Stone has continued to keep the releases from Lake Tahoe low since Feb. 12, when he reduced the flow for the first time since Dec. 11 to allow public officials downstream to assess damage from the New Year’s Day flood.
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