Snow survey comes up nearly dry

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While the usual crowd of reporters and television cameras gathered for the first California Department of Water Resources snow survey of the year in Phillips, one thing was missing: the snow.

"I think this pretty much tells the story of how bare and dry things are," said Frank Gehrke, chief of the California Cooperative Snow Survey, as he waded through bushes to begin the measurement.

This measurement marked the first time that Gehrke had walked through the grass, rather than snow, in January to check the snowpack since he started the job in the late 1980s, he said. Though it's pretty obvious the Sierra has received little snow so far this year, the measurement still must be recorded, he added.

Gehrke did find a small patch of snow within the designated survey area. It contained the equivalent of 1/7 of an inch of water, the lowest January measurement for the Phillips site on record. The former record for the site was .9 inches in 1987. Gehrke wasn't surprised at this year's measurement.

"It's just been a really quiet winter so far across the country," he said.

For this water season, the Northern Sierra stands at about 21 percent of normal and just 8 percent of the April 1 seasonal average when snowpack is expected to be at its peak before melting. Statewide, California has 19 percent of the Jan. 3 average water content and 7 percent of the average April 1 measurement.

Though California residents rely on a hefty winter snowpack for a third of its water, it's not quite time to start worrying yet, said Department of Water Resources director Mark Cowin.

"Fortunately, we have most of the winter ahead of us, and our reservoir storage is good," Cowin said in a statement.

Lake Oroville, Lake Shasta, the Central Valley Project and San Luis Reservoir, all important water storage sites for California, are all above average for this time of year.

The DWR is estimating it will be able to deliver 60 percent of the 4 million acre-feet of water requested by Californians for farming, industry and every-day use, according to Tuesday's statement. The estimate will change as the water year develops. In 2011, the DWR was able to deliver 80 percent of the request.

This year's scant snowpack is a great example of how variable California winters can be, Gehrke said. December, January and February are usually the most productive months for California in terms of snow, but sometimes March can pack a big punch, he said. But as every day passes without snow, the chance of the state being able to catch up to average snow levels becomes less and less likely.


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