Officials remain optimistic after first snow survey

Phillips Station off of Highway 50, near the entrance to the Sierra-at-Tahoe ski resort, elevation 6,800 feet. The snow depth at this station was measured at 41 inches in 2008. In December 2009, it was measured at 38.5 inches.

December 30, 2009 5:17:04 PM PST
There is currently a slight sense of optimism about California's water supply. After three years of drought, things may finally be heading in the right direction.

The latest measurements of the Sierra snowpack indicate that we are still behind, but not terribly so. It is only 85 percent of normal for this time of year but we could be rescued by an El Nino winter.

So far, there has been enough snowfall to get off to a great start for the ski season, but the question remains on whether we will get enough snow for the rest of the year to help California avoid a fourth year of drought.

It is the test of whether something that looks good, really is good, in terms of the state's water supply for the coming year. The first snow survey of the winter has been conducted at Phillips Station west of Echo Summit, where state surveyors found the snow depth to be 38.5 inches. The all-important water content measured 9 inches, just 75 percent of normal for this time of year.

"It's a reasonable start. It's a typical California start to its winter," says surveyor Frank Gehrke.

The Phillips Station is just one of many measuring sites up and down the Sierra. According to the California Department of Water Resources, the water content in the northern Sierra for this time of year is just 77 percent of average, 85 percent in the central Sierra, and 99 percent in the south.

What matters is what happens next.

"This year it looks like we're moving into a decent El Nino," Gehrke says. "Just what that portends remains to be seen because it's developing very late."

An El Nino is a warming of the surface temperatures of the Pacific Ocean, which can cause unusual weather patterns. Even if California ends up with an above-average snowpack this winter, the state would be far from declaring the drought over.

"Don't be lulled into a false sense of security that this much snow means that we're out of the drought. We're only at 85 percent of normal," Eric Alvarez with the California Department of Water Resources says. "We've had to endure three drought years. The reservoirs are still low. This will likely not continue, so we want to make sure that people conserve and take care with how much water they use in the 2010 year."

The very first snow survey may be the least important one. One or two big storms could change those numbers dramatically. What really matters is how much snow there is around April 1st.


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