March roared in like a lion

Mark McLaughlin
Photo by Mark McLaughlin

March came in like a lion this year, and this one had real teeth. The biggest storm of the season roared in on March 1, and by the time it spun out of here on March 4, the Tahoe Basin was blanketed under 3 to 8 feet of fresh powder.

South of Lake Tahoe, Kirkwood Mountain Resort reported a storm total in excess of 7 feet, with 4 feet of snow in 24 hours. Forty-eight inches in one day is an impressive total, but not even close to the Sierra record of 67 inches that fell in 24 hours on January 4 and 5, 1982.

Tahoe resorts are now boasting bomber base depths up to 18 feet deep and an epic spring skiing season is virtually guaranteed.

The intense storm caused a multitude of accidents on Interstate 80, including a situation where eight to 10 big rigs jack-knifed on the slick roadway. Whiteout conditions with zero visibility closed down the freeway over Donner Pass for most of Tuesday with all westbound traffic being held at Truckee and the California-Nevada state line. Tahoe-Truckee schools were closed for two days due to heavy snow.

For the most part, the storm was merely a temporary inconvenience, but at Squaw Valley USA it turned tragic when a member of their professional ski patrol was killed in an avalanche. Andrew Entin, 41, was doing routine snow safety work on the Headwall section of the mountain when he was caught in a slide. A 16-year veteran of the Squaw Valley ski patrol, Entin had worked that route for the past eight years. It just goes to show that nothing is routine when you’re dealing with the dangers of avalanche control.

Recent headlines have raved about the miraculous recovery of this winter’s previously lackluster snowpack. The 2009 season started off late, but heavy snowstorms during Christmas week kept us in the game. However, January was one of the driest on record and the water content in the snowpack plummeted to below 70 percent for the date. February was a great month for skiing and boarding with frequent cold powder storms, but it failed to offset the extremely dry January.

Winter is winding down, but there is still time for more wet storms to add precipitation to our local watersheds. As the days lengthen and temperatures warm, it may seem surprising March averages more than 15 days with measurable snowfall, more “snow days” than any other month. March ranks as the fourth wettest month of the year, but it produces an average of 80 inches of snow at the Central Sierra Snow Lab near Soda Springs. Although the weather during March can seem very spring-like, overall it is basically tied with January as the snowiest month of the winter.

It will take more rain and snow to boost the Sierra snowpack up to normal, but the March lion has put this year’s potential water deficit on notice. As much snow as normally falls during the whole month of March fell in the first four days. Enough precipitation landed in Lake Tahoe during the storm to raise the lake four inches, the equivalent of 12 billion gallons of water.

After two dry winters, California reservoirs are only half full, but the recent storms are beginning to recharge them. Locally, the water content in the Truckee-Lake Tahoe Basin snowpack jumped nearly 20 percent during the first four days of March, from about 73 percent of normal before the storm to more than 90 percent of average now. The bump in water content will definitely improve the Truckee-Tahoe boating and fishing season this summer, but we’re not out of the woods yet.

At the end of March, teams of snow surveyors will ski, snowshoe or ride snowcats up into the Sierra’s remote watersheds to take on-site measurements of the snowpack’s water content. Skiers and snowboarders prefer deep powder over sloppy slush, but hydrologists, reservoir operators, ranchers, farmers and city folk depend upon the Sierra snowpack for its water content, not its depth.

The upcoming April snow survey is considered the most critical of the season’s measurements because, on average, the snowpack reaches its peak water content at that time of year.

At this point in the season, the streamflow forecast for the Truckee River and Lake Tahoe Basin is between 70 to 80 percent of average. Not great, but certainly not catastrophic. That forecast is the best estimate that can be produced at this time given current conditions. There is a 50 percent chance the actual streamflow volume will be less or more than the predicted flow.

Many folks are ready for springtime and the longer days will only add to that itch. But when it comes to our all-important water supply, this year we need the March lion to stick around awhile longer. This summer we’ll be thankful that he did.

” Weather Historian Mark McLaughlin is an award-winning writer and photographer. He can be reached at

Were you at the 1960 Squaw Valley Winter Olympics and have a story to share? I want to hear it. Please contact Mark McLaughlin at

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