Soggy Mountain High: Big Start for Sierra Snowpack

Frank Gehrke conducting last year's first snow survey of the season. (Photo: Gretchen Weber)

All the wet weather that’s been drenching much of the state has left the Sierra Nevada with an extra-thick blanket of snow, which has water officials optimistic about the state’s water supply for 2011.

Using a combination of manual and electronic measurements, the state’s Department of Water Resources conducted its first snow survey of the season on Tuesday, and found the water content of the state’s snowpack at 198% of normal for this time of year.   Last year at this time, the statewide average was just 85% of normal.

Surveyor Frank Gehrke said all this precipitation has California off to an unusual start this winter season, especially because it’s a La Niña year, which usually means a drier winter throughout much of California. “You generally don’t expect to see these really significant accumulations at all,” said Gehrke. “So, we’re a little bit scratching our heads going ‘Hmm, this is a little outside of the pattern.”

Particularly unusual, he said, is the situation in the southern Sierra, where the water content of the snowpack is currently 261% of normal for this time of year. Water content is a better indicator of spring runoff than snow depth alone.

But just because we are starting out wet doesn’t mean we’ll stay that way.  Gehrke said he predicts a lull in the storms sometime soon, and just how long that lull is could determine what the water allocations will be in the spring.

“A common feature of a Niña is a pretty decent start to the year with a lapse in the January/February timeframe,” said Gehrke.  “And that could put us in a less than optimal circumstance come April 1.”

That didn’t dampen the optimism of Gerhke’s boss at DWR. “This boosts our hopes that we will have an adequate water supply for our cities and farms as we continue to shake off the effects of the 2007-2009 drought,” said director Mark Cowin in a press release Tuesday.

Earlier this month the agency said it would likely deliver 50 percent of the water requested for the coming year, which is what it delivered in 2010, but the agency said Tuesday that cities and farms are “all-but-certain” to get more water from the state in 2011 than they have in years.

Most of California’s reservoirs are at or above normal storage levels for this time of year.  You can track the state’s water supply with our interactive map, which now includes key information from the snow survey: California Reservoir Watch.


View KQED: California Reservoir Watch in a larger map