Snow pack measurement reveals we’re far from drought recovery, according to CDWR

SOUTH LAKE TAHOE — The California Department of Water Resources conducted the first Phillips Station snow survey of the season on Thursday, Dec 30 after the basin received over 200 inches of snow, and will potentially see more in the coming week.

The statewide snowpack average in California currently is 160% of normal, and many of the reservoirs have not reached capacity yet.
Mike Peron/ Tahoe Daily Tribune

The measurement of water content in the snowpack helps forecast the amount of water that will melt and run off to the state reservoirs.

CDWR Manager of the Snow Surveys and Water Supply Forecasting Unit Sean de Guzman reported that the record amount of rainfall in October primed the soil in the area for any potential runoff that will come in the future. Although the snow depth was measured at 78.5″ with 20″ of snow water content, de Guzman is still hopeful for more precipitation in the future, given the drought in the area is far from over.

Historically, 2015 was the driest winter in Lake Tahoe compared to data taken as early as the 1990’s. But in comparison, 2017 and 2019 proved to be two of the heaviest snowfalls in the basin to date, leaving the question of what this season is still to bring.

Officials are labeling this a wake up call.

“Climate change is here,” said de Guzaman, “and it’s really impacting our watersheds as well as our snowpack.”

The statewide snowpack average in California currently is 160% of normal, and many of the reservoirs have not reached capacity yet. With three months of potential season left for snow before the April average reading, officials are hopeful.

This last week alone, ski resorts have reported 5-10 feet of new snow, with the base at Homewood on the West shore reporting over 7 feet at lake level. This unprecedented amount of snow broke the record in how much fell in a single month, but OpenSnow and OpenSummit Forecaster and Analyst Bryan Allegretto said that he’s seen winters with this magnitude of snow before.

“As far as a storm this cold with over 100″ of snow in a week,” said Allegretto, “it reminds me most of February 12-18, 2019, and March 13-28, which dropped over 200″ of snow for two weeks straight without stopping. Twice as big as this storm season.”

Allegretto said that it’s impossible to tell how a season will go based on one storm, citing back that in Dec. of 2012, the basin saw an extreme amount of snow but then saw a record dry year in 2013.

“La Nina seasons are fickle in the Sierras,” said Allegretto. “They can be very wet some seasons and very dry others. We can just remain hopeful we see the same pattern we saw in December show up again at least once a month to open the storm door for a while.”

This weekend is predicted to clear up with opportunity to get out to the mountain, with a cooler storm coming off the coast of Alaska headed to the basin during the week.

“In the shorter term,” said Allegretto, “we could see light snow every other day through New Year’s Eve. [There] may be a break the first two or three days of January, and then the forecast model suggests another strong storm or two that are possible between Jan 3-7.”

UC Davis Tahoe Environmental Research Center Education Outreach Director Heather Seagle said that it’s too early to tell how this snow will affect the lake level. So far, the rim level has only raised by an inch or so due to the snow.

“It is possible that it could affect it,” said Seagle, “but there is still lots of time between now and then. It’s impossible to project out what it’s going to mean overall.”

Miranda Jacobson is a staff writer for the Tahoe Daily Tribune, a sister publication of the Sierra Sun.

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