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Sierra Snowpack Level Near Record Low

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Snowflake. (CBS)

Snowflake. (CBS)

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ECHO SUMMIT (CBS/AP) – California’s Sierra Nevada snowpack measured a meager 15 inches in some places, officials announced Wednesday, bearing bad news to a state that depends on snowmelt to meet the water needs of 25 million people and more than a million acres of farmland.

Resorts are suffering as skiers turn up their noses at manmade snow, especially after last year’s prolific powder. And paltry snow means big worries this summer for farmers in the state’s Central Valley who depend on snowmelt delivered through aqueducts to irrigate the most prolific agricultural region in the nation.

The arid great valley provides most of the nation’s table grapes and 80 percent of the world’s almonds, in addition to 400 other crops. The movement from annual crops like tomatoes and broccoli to permanent crops like tree nuts and grapes has farmers struggling in drought years to keep them alive.

Electronic measurements taken this week estimate the statewide snowpack at 37 percent of normal for this time of year and 23 percent of the average reading on April 1, when the spring thaw starts. The 15 inches of snow measured at Echo Summit near South Lake Tahoe contained just 3.8 inches of water and bode ill for next year’s water deliveries.

The worrisome measurement also is “a little misleading, because we only got most of the snow in the last few days and a couple of inches last night,” said Frank Tehrke, chief of snow survey for the California Department of Water Resources. “It’s not encouraging for our reservoirs this summer.”

Tehrke described the mark as among the lowest since the department began taking measurements in 1946.

The dry winter stretches east to the Rocky Mountains, where the snowpack remains below average in Utah and Colorado. Experts said the lack of fresh snow made for a hard impact when skier Asha Davenport, 19, fell off a chairlift Sunday and died at Utah’s Canyons resort after suffering a seizure.

“She probably hit rock-hard snow,” said Beau Uriona, a federal hydrologist based in Salt Lake City. “If you land on soft snow, it’s certainly going to help you out.”

The region got an encouraging start in October, but saw only a handful of storms so far. None have produced the snowfall that state water managers want. Squaw Valley Resort, for example, recorded a cumulative 85 inches of snow so far this year, below its average of 450 inches and nowhere near the 810 inches recorded in last year’s bountiful blanketing.

“So far, we just haven’t received a decent number of winter storms,” DWR Director Mark Cowin said in a statement. He was more pessimistic than he had been a month earlier, when he said that “we still have most of our winter ahead of us.”

This year has water managers recalling the drought years of 2007 to 2010, when as little as 35 percent of the water requested could be delivered. Last year’s record snowfall helped fill up the state’s reservoirs, which means the 29 agencies dependent on the state water aqueducts are expected to receive 60 percent of their contracted amounts this year.

Farmers who are connected through a federal system of aqueducts are waiting to learn how much water they will be allocated by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, which also relies on snowpack for its deliveries. Westlands Water District, with more than 600,000 acres of farmland dependent upon imported water for tomatoes, lettuce, almonds and citrus, is planning for less than half of what its contracts promise.

“We’re doing the rain dance as much as we can out here,” said spokeswoman Gayle Holman.

Officials are not hopeful the region has time to rebound.

“The probability of getting back to average is really low” this far into the winter, said Randy Julander, the Utah Snow Survey supervisor. “January doubled our snowpack and we loved that, but we’re getting back into dry, warm weather.”

(Copyright 2012 by CBS San Francisco. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.)

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