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Winter snowpack shows dismal numbers

April 5, 2013

The winter that wasn’t. The last big storm to hit the Eastern Sierra was in December, as seen in this photo taken near Old Mammoth Road. Since then, the snowpack has been steadily declining, not growing, leaving the Sierra at about 51 percent of its normal snowpack as of April 1. Photo/Wendilyn Grasseschi

 

Sierra at about half its historic average

Monday, April 1, marked the day the state’s water managers say the snowpack is considered to be as deep as it gets—but not this year.

Instead, the snowpack has shrunk since January, dropping from 133 percent of normal to 52 percent of normal for April 1.

In other words, the snowpack decreased when it typically increases the most—during the two wettest months of the year in the Sierra, February and March.

Instead, February and March broke records as the driest on record.

Only a few places, like the Mammoth area, have bucked the trend. Mammoth Mountain sits in the middle of one of the low points of the Sierra crest, but its snowpack this year is one of the high notes of the state, coming in at about 82 percent of normal for April 1.

Mammoth Mountain logged in at about 289 inches of snow by the last day of March, compared to about 350 inches a year average.

In contrast, the snowpack just a few dozens miles south, at North Lake above Bishop, came in at 30 percent of normal for April 1, and the rest of the Southern Sierra is in not much better shape.

The last state snow surveys of the year were completed this past week and showed the Southern Sierra was hit the hardest at about 51 percent of normal.

The Central Sierra is at 58 percent of normal and the Northern Sierra is at 62 percent of normal, according to state data.

Only the massive storms in December and November have prevented the winter from being an unmitigated disaster for ranchers, farmers, wildlife, and cities.

Lakes and reservoirs are still mostly full—a bright spot in a dismal winter, but another drought winter could rapidly deplete them.

Snowpack data impacts far more than the fate of resort towns, skiers, and snowboarders.

The Sierra snowpack provides California—which provides the world with a large chunk of its fruits and vegetables—with about a third of all the water it needs.

And while some still hope for an April miracle, according to Frank Gherke, the state Department of Water Resources head of snow surveys, that is unlikely.

“Even if we do get snow in April, most of it will melt off before it can be captured in reservoirs,” he said. “We count on a slow, steady melt off.”

Even so, it would take a lot of snow to make up for the dry months—some 18 feet of snow—to meet historic averages for this time of year.

To add insult to injury, the last few months have also been warm.

“We did see some record highs in your area in March,” said Edan Lindaman with the National Weather Service, pointing toward a mid-March day when it was 65 degrees.

The heat has dried the region out even faster, making the coming spring and summer more liable to fire, if April and May don’t bring significant rain.

The end result, in regards to water, could be a lot of belt tightening. 

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