Snowpack drops below 50% of normal
The temperature goes up, the temperature goes down – that’s spring in Truckee.
But unusually warm temperatures early in the season combined with a dry winter may cause a windfall of problems.
A California Department of Water Resources snow survey on April 1 shows the runoff index in the North Lake Tahoe area is about 45 percent of the historical average. The April 1 measurement is particularly significant because it usually marks the maximum winter snowpack, and the annual water availability forecast for the rest of the year.
And the annual forecast doesn’t look good, especially for Truckee.
According to Bill Hauck, the senior watershed consultant with Sierra Pacific Power Company, less than half of the average snowpack on the eastern side of Donner Summit may lead to low water levels at Donner Lake sooner than last year.
Hauck filed for a variance from the State of California Division of Safety of Dams because of the early snow run-off. Warm temperatures forced the company to begin collecting water sooner than usual to fill the lake and maintain minimum fishery flows in Donner Creek later this summer.
“In previous years we were capturing snowmelt into July. It may be tapering off in May if warm weather continues,” he said.
Last year Sierra Pacific Power Co. received complaints from homeowners at Donner Lake about the lake’s water level.
“We maintained requirements last year, but it was low,” Hauck said. “We have about half the snowpack we did last year and it’s running now. When it melts in May and June it’s easier to maintain a high water level.”
“We will still be able to have a full lake by Memorial Day,” he added. “But if we have another summer like last summer it will be real difficult to keep the lake levels up.”
“It’s going to be a hard one to call this year in terms of straight economic factors,” said Charles White, owner of Donner Lake Realty, of the winter’s impact on the area’s tourism industry. “Last time we had a drought Donner Lake and Lake Tahoe were the only game in town. We were really impacted to our detriment because more boats were here than the lake can support. It could be a real situation.”
White said low water at the lake is a two-prong problem: it further concentrates the contaminants in the Donner Lake water system, and it forces all the Reno boaters to use Donner instead of Boca or Stampede reservoir.
“The perimeter of the lake does shrink significantly when the water level is down,” White added. “There are more obstructions in place … come August it could cause problems.”
“Truckee reservoir storage isn’t too bad right now,” said Pierre Stevens, the Sierra water forecaster with the California Department of Water Resources. “Tahoe reservoir storage is above average as of March 1.”
But if a hot summer ensues, that could change, and the repercussions could affect local businesses.
For some, a short winter has already taken its toll.
The occupancy of the Holiday Inn Express on Coldstream Road and Donner Pass Road has seen a decrease in occupancy earlier this year than last.
“Eighty percent of our business is from the Bay Area and if they have spring and summer in their heads then they don’t come up here,” said Jon Borden, general manager of the two-year-old hotel.
The hotel has decreased its rates from as high as $189 to $130 to boost occupancy.
“We are in our low season … and we probably won’t see an increase until July.”
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