Tahoe sees more snow than most but this could be 3rd driest year on record
With the end of the ski season around the corner, the California Department of Water Resources noted that the 2021 winter season may lead to the state’s third driest year on record.
Public Information Officer Chris Orrock said the department’s April snow survey at Phillips Station, near the intersection of U.S. Highway 50 and Sierra-at-Tahoe Road, revealed 49.5 inches of snow depth and 21 inches of snow water equivalent.
Orrock qualified the survey’s findings by calling them “a snapshot of a location at a specific time frame” and added, “statewide, on that same day, we only average 16.5 inches of snow water equivalent.“
Orrock said Phillips Station, between 6,800 and 7,000 feet, received more storm activity than the rest of the state.
“Phillips Station was an outlier this year,” Orrock said.
Orrock said the station specifically received 83% of the state’s average snowfall while the surrounding area received 70%.
“The area around Tahoe did better than the vast majority of the rest of the state,“ Orrock said.
Orrock said the region experienced two to three atmospheric rivers that brought moisture to the area over the last two years.
“November 2018 to June 2019, we had over 40 atmospheric rivers,” Orrock said “That was the fifth wettest year on record.”
Orrock said the snowpack usually begins to melt after April 1, but this year it peaked March 23.
The snow is melting quickly, and the current snowpack statewide reflects 55% of the state average annually.
Orrock said because there was little rain preceding the snow this past season, the dry soil below will absorb a significant amount of the snowmelt before it can reach any reservoirs.
“We’re projecting a 58% runoff total when the snow melts because some of that is going into the soil instead of streams and reservoirs,” Orrock said.
Orrock said the dryness observed this year is not unusual for the weather phenomenon known as La Niña.
“Typically, they are drier and they are colder,“ Orrock said. ”That’s why when we had a few storms that came in, they came in cold and put a lot of snow on the ground.“
Orrock said the state’s major reservoirs are currently at 50% capacity.
The Sierra snowpack accounts for 30% of California’s fresh water supply.
“We call it the frozen reservoir,” Orrock explained. “It’s the largest water reservoir in the state. It just comes down as snow instead of rain.”
Orrock said in a “perfect” year, the snowpack is ideally above average or average, and is very cold.
“We keep the water in the mountain in frozen form until it slowly melts off in late spring and summer, replenishing water in reservoirs,” Orrock said.
The reservoirs are already too depleted for the anticipated runoff to replace what they are releasing, Orrock explained.
This year, Orrock said, the department observed a quick melt off.
Susan Whitman, Vail communications manager for the Tahoe region, said Northstar Ski Resort received 202 inches of snow — over 16 feet.
Leisl Hepburn, the Squaw Valley Alpine Meadows public relations director, said the Squaw Valley’s upper mountain received 297 inches of total snowfall this season. Alpine Meadows received 285 inches.
“That’s about 75% of our annual average of 400 inches, and we’re measuring about 65% at mid-mountain at Squaw Valley,“ Hepburn explained.
Hepburn said the dual-mountain resorts’ base ranges from 38 inches on Squaw Valley’s lower mountain to 105 inches on the upper mountain at Alpine Meadows.
“The weather has been warm and sunny, and spring skiing is in full effect,” Hepburn said. “Our scheduled closing date is May 31, weather and conditions permitting.”
Orrock said his team’s technology only offers accurate weather predictions 10 to 14 days out.
There is no snow in the forecast.
Rebecca O’Neil is a staff writer for the Sierra Sun and The Union, sister publications of the Tribune.
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