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Sierra Snow Survey Offers Little Hope as Drought Lingers

, KQED Science | January 30, 2014 | 0 Comments
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Snow is accumulating at lake level in South Lake Tahoe. (Jim Siler)

Accumulations in South Lake Tahoe on Thursday provided mostly window dressing for the monthly snow survey. (Jim Siler)

Snow finally came to the Sierra on Thursday but the flurries were too little, too late, to plump up the closely-watched Sierra snowpack.

About six inches of heavy, wet snow blanketed areas near Lake Tahoe, just as state water managers were scrounging for some good news for the monthly Sierra snow survey. They didn’t find much to celebrate.

Water managers keep a close eye on two measures. First: where the snowpack stands compared to the average for this date. Answer: just 12 percent of normal, statewide. That shatters the previous mark for this point in the winter of 21 percent, which had stood for more than 20 years.

The second number is even more sobering: Thursday’s measurements put the water content of Sierra snows at just 7 percent of the average for April 1st, when accumulation is typically at its peak and the runoff season is about to start. With just two months to go, that’s a lot of precipitation to make up, considering that California counts on the mountain snowpack for about a third of its water.

National Weather Service forecasters in Sacramento called the current unsettled conditions, “the first significant weather system to affect the region in almost two months.” And it’s the end of January. That means two of the three months most counted on for Northern California’s annual precipitation have gone by the boards with barely a whimper.

A mix of snow and rain showers could linger into the weekend but hope of another wave of precipitation next week has largely evaporated, and longer-range forecasts remain stubbornly dry.

Governor Jerry Brown has begun using the term, “megadrought” to describe current conditions. Earlier this week, state health officials identified 17 communities that could exhaust their water supplies sometime in the next one to four months, including several parts of Sonoma and Mendocino Counties. Meanwhile, the state Department of Fish & Wildlife closed off significant stretches of northern California rivers to fishing, until river conditions improve. Officials say water levels were so low in some places that fish were being trapped in small, isolated pools.The closures included portions of the Russian and American Rivers, in effect through April.

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About the Author ()

Craig is KQED's science editor, specializing in weather, climate, water & energy issues, with a little seismology thrown in just to shake things up. Prior to his current position, he launched and led the station's award-winning multimedia project, Climate Watch. Craig is also an accomplished writer/producer of television documentaries, with a focus on natural resource issues.