Weather Window: April snow won’t break drought |

Weather Window: April snow won’t break drought

University of Nevada Special Collections/Community submitted photo

Moderate but frequent storms this winter and spring have made headlines in the West, especially with so much media attention focused on the El Nino episode in the Pacific Ocean. During the course of this year’s rainy season, the slow and erratic weather activity has added up. The April 1 snow survey indicated that water content in the Sierra snowpack ranged from 126 percent in the north to 105 percent in the south, for an average of 106 percent statewide.

A better scenario than last year, but the California Department of Water Resources predicts that cities and farms will still only be allocated 25 to 50 percent of the water they have requested. Despite hopes for a drought-busting, El Nino-influenced winter, dry soil conditions and low water levels in important reservoirs are pervasive throughout the Far West.

Sierra watersheds currently reflect the hit or miss nature of this year’s storm patterns. The Lake Shasta watershed is looking good with a projection for a 90 percent average runoff and water levels at the Shasta reservoir, the state’s largest, are near normal. However, the vital Feather River watershed which feeds Lake Oroville, California’s second largest reservoir and the primary storage point for cities throughout California, runoff is projected to be less than half the average.

Despite all the hoopla our local resorts had a banner year with ticket sales and attendance up significantly, a seasonal average of just above normal will not mitigate our regional water woes. In fact, the April 1 snowpack conditions for western Nevada and eastern California, which more accurately represent water runoff projections for the Lake Tahoe-Truckee region, are below normal. As of early April, which is the statistical maximum for water content in the snowpack, the Lake Tahoe Basin came in at 87 percent of average for the date, and the Truckee River at 89 percent. After four consecutive years with below average precipitation, reservoir storage in the Truckee River Basin is now at 67 percent of normal, and the Lake Tahoe Basin is struggling at just 11 percent of average.

An active Pacific storm pattern since the end of March has improved snowpack conditions, freshening up the slopes for the diehards who are getting their last runs of the season. It’s getting late in the year for miracles, but the month of April can still pack a punch.

In late March 1880, Truckee residents were enjoying a series of mild sunny days and were feeling optimistic that the heavy winter they had endured was finally over. The snow was melting fast and Truckee locals were already talking boats and fishing. Despite the prevailing optimism, the Storm King had a cruel joke to play on mountain residents. On April 1, a vigorous storm smothered the Sierra Nevada with four feet of snow in 24 hours. The powerful storm was only the first of several major low-pressure systems barreling in from the Pacific Ocean. For three weeks storms dumped a record 298 inches of snow on Donner Summit. By the third week of April, Truckee was buried under 16 feet of snow and the ice measured 10 feet thick on Donner Lake.

As the storms churned on without a break, the snow reached incredible depths. More than 20 feet of it covered the ground at the McKinney estate on the West Shore of Lake Tahoe. More than 36 feet fell at Sugar Pine Point that winter, with nearly 17 feet in April.

As May approached, the weather finally cleared, leaving a snowpack nearly 31 feet deep. Donner Summit received almost 67 feet of snow that winter, and more than one-third of it fell in April.

and#8212; Tahoe historian Mark McLaughlin is an award-winning author and professional speaker. His books are available at local stores or at You can reach him at

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