Winter Storms Bring Drought Relief

Winter Storms Bring Drought Relief

(From the San Jose Mercury-News, February 3, 2017)

After a month of huge blizzards and “atmospheric river” storms, the Sierra Nevada snowpack — source of a third of California’s drinking water — is 177 percent of the historic average, the biggest in more than two decades.

The last time there was this much snow on Feb. 1 in the Sierra was in 1995. In a breathtaking shift for a state that had been mired in five years of punishing drought, 25 feet of new snow has fallen on Heavenly ski resort in South Lake Tahoe since New Year’s Day. Freeways and schools across the Sierra have been closed at times, and firefighters are having trouble finding fire hydrants.

“Some are buried under 12 or 13 feet of snow,” said Eric Guevin, fire marshal at the Tahoe-Douglas Fire Protection District in Zephyr Cove, Nevada, just north of the California state line. “We’ve had to use metal detectors to find them.”

After a week to dry off, a new round of storms is set to roll into California. A Pacific system will dump up to 3 more feet of new snow in the Sierra by this weekend.

“It’s a solid storm, not quite as big as some earlier this month, but it will still bring a decent amount of snow,” said Tony Fuentes, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Reno.

Daily readings from more than 100 electronic sensors across the famed Sierra range, which stretches 400 miles from Lassen County to the Tehachapi Pass in Kern County, show that the water content in California’s vast “frozen reservoir” is already 108 percent of the April 1 historic average, with another two months still to go in the winter.

On Jan. 1, it was just 64 percent of the historic average for that date, and 23 percent of the April 1 average. The U.S. Drought Monitor, a weekly report put out by federal officials, reported last Thursday that 49 percent of California is no longer a drought, including every Northern California county from the Bay Area and Lake Tahoe to the Oregon border, although significant parts of Southern California and the San Joaquin Valley remain in drought.

At 177 percent of average now, the Sierra snowpack is the biggest since it reached 207 percent on Feb. 1, 1995, according to state records. Since 1950, that year was the third largest snowpack, behind 1952, when it was 267 percent and 1969, when it was 230 percent, on Feb. 1.

This year, the Sierra snowpack so far ranks seventh.