Water & Drought

Did this year feel like the wettest ever? In California’s northern Sierra, it’s about to be

The northern Sierra Nevada, which supplies water for much of the rest of California, is poised to surpass its wettest year in recorded history well before the rainy season comes to a close.

As of Saturday morning, the region had accumulated an average of 87.5 inches of water across eight northern Sierra stations since the beginning of the season on Oct. 1, according to data from the California Department of Water Resources.

Northern Sierra rainfall 

Erick Kurth, a meteorologist for the National Weather Service, said rain and snow predicted for the upcoming week could help bring the extra water needed to exceed the 1982-1983 record. Areas throughout the Sierra mountains saw snowfall into Saturday afternoon. Rain is expected to shower the region again beginning Tuesday and last through Thursday.

The current record for the northern Sierra was established when the water year running from Oct. 1, 1982 through Sept. 30, 1983 saw a total of 88.5 inches.

Kurth said a fairly wet fall season paired with rain and snowfall brought on by a series of atmospheric rivers this January and February fed current high water levels.

“I think it’s notable that we could beat the record now,” Kurth said. “We’re really only about half way through the water year.”

Saturday’s year-to-date average sits at 205 percent above normal for this time in the water year, according to Department of Water Resources data. A typical water year in the northern Sierra comes in at an average of 50 inches of precipitation.

Averages for the region are taken from eight stations from the city of Mount Shasta to the El Dorado County town of Pacific House, said department spokeswoman Maggie Macias. Rainfall and melted snow from the sites are measured on a daily basis.

Precipitation in the northern Sierra is particularly important for California, as the state’s agricultural and household users rely on the snow and water, Kurth said.

So far, the 2016-2017 water year has seen more than a dozen atmospheric rivers throughout the state, far more than the four to five that California usually gets, Kurth said. The increase has resulted in a hefty snow pack and flooding in some areas.

The wet year stands in sharp contrast to drought that left Californians with low water supplies and increased water use restrictions over the previous four years.

In 2014, Gov. Jerry Brown declared a state of emergency due to the drought, with the department recording only 31.3 inches of water for the year and an average of 37.2 inches for the following water year in the northern Sierra.

The 2015-2016 water year in the region came just above average, at 57.9 inches.

Jason Young, a general manager for the Mount Shasta Ski Park, said recent years have proven how unpredictable California weather can be.

“The last two years were outstanding and the two before that were the worst we’ve seen in the industry,” Young said.

The small resort, which primarily caters to skiers from the Redding area, typically opens from mid-December through April. The 2013-2014 and 2014-2015 ski season were dramatically shorter, opening for less than a month both years, Young said.

The current ski season opened at its regular time and is set to run through this month. The increase in snow has only caused a few power outages at the ski park, he said.

“It's the nature of the beast but we’re back on track,” Young said.

On Friday, Gov. Jerry Brown announced an end to the drought, although he cautioned Californians to remain cautious about their water use. In January, he had declared a state of emergency across California when heavy rains severely stressed the state’s roads and other infrastructure.

Kurth said such extreme shifts between dry and wet years were not uncommon for the Golden State.

He pointed to the second driest year in the northern Sierra, in 1976-1977, which saw an average of 19 inches of precipitation. The year before, the state recorded only 28.3 inches. During the next water year, between 1977 and 1978, the region saw 71.6 inches, far more than normal, Kurth said.

“It’s just a feast or famine,” he said. “It seems odd, but if you look at the historical record, there’s a lot of that variation.”

Nashelly Chavez: 916-321-1188, @nashellytweets