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Snowpack Slips Further

bay_2981.jpgAfter the puny amount of precipitation we had in January, you sort of knew this was coming. Sure enough, after the second survey of the season, the statewide average for water content in the Sierra snowpack has slipped further.

As of today’s survey, the state’s Dept. of Water Resources says the snowpack’s water component is 61% of normal for this date. A month ago it was closer to three-quarters. Normally water content increases over the course of the snow season.

It only serves to cement growing fears that the coming summer will make last year’s water restrictions look like a tea party. In an unusually blunt statement, DWR Director Lester Snow said “We may be at the start of the worst California drought in modern history.” Reports are already coming out of the Central Valley of farmers planning to take more acreage out of production this year, and some cities anticipate going to court to get their desired water allocations.

Today’s survey combines manual tests at four alpine locations with readings from a network of electronic sensors. Even more alarming are some of the readings from key reservoirs. Lake Oroville, the main holding tank for the State Water Project, is at 43% of “normal” and just 28% of total capacity.

A developing La Nina condition in the Pacific may divert the jet stream and hold more rain at bay, as the season winds down. There are about two months left in California’s core “wet” season.

Photo by Heidemarie Carle: San Pablo Bay after some sparse January rain.

Cities, Farmers, Ski Resorts Sweat Out the Snowpack

“Better late than never”is about all you can say if you’re keeping a wary eye on the Sierra snowpack. Winter finally arrived in the Lake Tahoe region, just in time for Christmas skiers–but maybe not in time for water consumers looking ahead to next summer.

As of Christmas Day, the three key reservoirs in northern California were all at less than half of their “normal” levels for this time of year; Shasta (47%), Oroville (45%) and Folsom (44%). Oroville, a critical link in the State Water Project, was at just 22% of its total capacity.

With the winter’s first hands-on Sierra snow survey coming up next week, Elissa Lynn, Sr. Meteorologist for DWR tells me that readings from the network of automated snow sensors indicate that we’re about 15% of the way toward a full “normal” season (as measured on April 1st). That means we have a lot of catching up to do.

Ski resorts are already having a lean year and as Tom Knudson writes in today’s Sacramento Bee, some are looking ahead to when climate change might cause this kind of year to become the norm.

A Long Trek to a Shrinking Glacier

img_5833-300.jpgThe glaciers in the Sierra Nevada are melting fast, and I really wanted to see one before it was too late. Earlier this fall, I got my wish. Reporter Sasha Khokha and I were lucky enough to travel to Yosemite and tag along with geographer Hassan Basagic on his trek to photograph the Dana Glacier as part of his research documenting the retreat of the Sierra glaciers.

The hike to Dana Glacier was stunning. We parked the car just outside Yosemite’s Tioga Pass Gate, which is at close to 10,000 feet in elevation, and began bushwhacking almost immediately. We climbed to the base of the glacier traveling through soft green meadows, up and over mountains of multi-colored boulders, and along the edges of electric blue and green alpine lakes. Not one cloud passed over our heads all day long.

While the climb was memorable for its beauty, what made the day truly outstanding was having a guide explaining the landscape around us each step of the way. Since 2003, Basagic has been tracking the changes in the glaciers of the Sierra using historic photographs. His research contains comparison photographs of several other Sierra glaciers, including the Lyell and Maclure glaciers.

Californians are thinking more than ever about water, snow pack, and our glaciers due in part to a couple of dry years and two pretty severe fire seasons. In October, Tom Knudson of the Sacramento Bee wrote an interesting piece about his trek to the Lyell Glacier with a team of scientists. Knudson and team found that like Dana, the Lyell Glacier has shrunk dramatically since 1883.

While the hike to Dana was spectacular, the glacier itself appeared less than majestic. It looked vulnerable, clinging to the side of a massive bowl, a remnant of the sea of ice that once filled the entire valley. It looked so small and fragile that I was not surprised when Yosemite geologist Greg Stock told us in an interview the next day that it’s likely the Dana Glacier will be gone in the next 25-50 years.

Check out the videos and audio slidehow of our journey to the Dana Glacier.

Listen to the radio report.