Water & Drought

Sierra Nevada snow picture brightens, but is still just a fraction of normal

Sierra snowpack stays below average despite gains

A Feb. 1 snow survey by the Department of Water Resources in Phillips Station, Calif. revealed that, while the snowpack has tripled since last month's survey, it is still far below average.
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A Feb. 1 snow survey by the Department of Water Resources in Phillips Station, Calif. revealed that, while the snowpack has tripled since last month's survey, it is still far below average.

The last time California officials conducted their snow survey near Echo Summit, a month ago, the ground was practically barren.

This time there was snow. Just not a lot of it.

The Department of Water Resources’ monthly snow survey at Phillips Station on Thursday revealed a meager 13.6 inches of snow, or 14 percent of historical average. It was the latest evidence of a dry winter that has conjured up fears of another drought.

The snow measurement at Phillips is “not nearly where we’d like to be,” said Frank Gehrke, the DWR employee who runs the snow survey.

Gehrke, who normally conducts the survey on cross-country skis, settled for boots Thursday. He did note the improvement from the Jan. 3 survey, when the snow field at Phillips was mostly grass and mud with a few patches of snow. That survey revealed just 1.3 inches of snow on average.

The results from Phillips, which sits at an elevation of 6,800 feet, are roughly in line with snow measurements taken elsewhere in the Sierra Nevada. The statewide snowpack is at an average 27 percent of normal, according to DWR statistics.

State officials say it’s far too early to worry about another drought. Last winter’s record rain and snow left most of California’s reservoirs brimming with water, providing a cushion for this year. Gehrke, meanwhile, held out hope that this winter could turn wet at some point.

“There’s still a lot of the winter left,” he said. “Anything can happen as we move through the rest of the season.”

The immediate forecast is far from promising, however. California is in the midst of a two-week dry spell with unseasonably warm temperatures. The National Weather Service said Sacramento will see a high temperature of 70 on Saturday. That’s 8 degrees above normal.

Gehrke, however, said the warm spell won’t immediately melt the snowpack. He’s more concerned that the temperatures get cold again if and when more storms roll into the state this winter. Warm storms bring rain, not snow. The state relies on a healthy snowpack to replenish reservoirs and provide water through the summer and fall.

Officials are counting on additional storms. Michelle Mead, the weather service’s warning coordination meteorologist in Sacramento, said California has experienced two “atmospheric rivers” this winter. An average winter brings five such storms.

The first Sierra snow survey confirms slow a start to winter 2017-2018. When the measurements were done, the Department of Water Resources reported the dismal numbers: just 1.3 inches of snow on average, and a “snow water content” of 0.4 inches. T

Dale Kasler: 916-321-1066, @dakasler

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