Sierra snowpack levels portend wet year

By Don Thompson The Associated Press
Friday January 04, 2002

SACRAMENTO — A series of winter storms has left the Sierra Nevada mountains packed with plenty of snow, easing state hydrologists’ concerns the state could be headed for a drought. 

Poor snow a year ago aggravated the state’s electricity crisis by cutting the water available to hydroelectric plants that produce about a quarter of California’s power. Snowpack was half of normal last January, and the winter stayed dry. 

By contrast, this year the snowpack is 139 percent of normal — the equivalent of 61 percent of an entire average winter, according to the Department of Water Resources’ first snow survey of the year Thursday. 

“If we were to have just average rain and snow the rest of the year, we’d be in good shape,” said department spokesman Jeff Cohen. “There’s a lot of cushion there.” 

The mountain range’s snowpack provides two-thirds of California’s water for cities, farms and recreational uses. 

It’s too soon to tell if the series of wet winter storms will continue, Cohen said, “but we’re on track right now for an above average year, that’s for sure.” Not only have the storms been consistent, he said, but they’ve been spaced far enough apart to allow water to soak in and run off without causing flooding. 

The department took remote readings from 95 automated snowpack sensors, plus conducted snow surveys along Highway 50 throughout the American River watershed. 

The surveys showed 165 percent of normal snowpack at a test site located at 7,600 feet above sea level; 172 percent of normal at 6,800 feet; 176 percent at a site at 6,700 feet; and 179 percent at a test site located at 7,100 feet. 

The 139 percent average snowpack across the Sierra would be enough water to fill a glass 17 inches tall, Cohen said. 

Water projections aren’t yet in from the State Water Project, Cohen said, but are also expected to bring good news for the projects’ urban and agricultural customers in a couple weeks. 

The above average snowfall is good news for state officials who had been worried enough about a possible drought that they started a drought-preparedness Web site and held a series of workshops this fall. They also had begun contemplating starting a water purchasing program — buying water from those who have it and distributing it to those who need it — as the state did during the last drought. 

That drought ran six years from 1987 to 1992, forcing half the state’s counties to declare drought emergencies. 


On the Net: 

The Department of Water Resources: http://www.water.ca.gov