The results are in. Following a manual snow survey Tuesday at Phillips Station near Sierra-at-Tahoe Resort, the California Department of Water Resources reported the Sierra Nevada snowpack continues to show promise.
Measurements at the designated snowpack observation site showed a 76.2 inch snow depth, but more importantly, a 25.4 inch snow water equivalent — the measure of the volume of water in the snow pack.
That number equates to 130 percent of average year-to-date snowpack water volume measurements for that site, which observers said is a welcome sign compared to recent drought years.
The Northern Sierra Nevada as a whole is tracking at 120 percent of its multi-decade average for this time of year. The statewide measurements indicate 114 percent of average in the mountains, or 20.4 inches.
“It’s a really good start for the year,” said Frank Gehrke, chief of the California Cooperative Snow Surveys Program. “Clearly we want to see this keep coming.”
‘MAKING A BIG DIFFERENCE’
Gehrke and his team were on site Tuesday recording the snow depth and water volume from seven different points in a meadow near the entrance to Sierra-at-Tahoe.
“We don’t know how the rest of the winter is going to play out,” Gehrke added. “We’re still very encouraged by the fact that we’re getting these storms that aren’t major storms, but are still making a big difference in terms of snowpack accumulation.”
The results thus far are a stark contrast to last winter, when Gehrke recorded a water content of just 2.5 inches in a February survey.
According to the DWR, Tuesday’s measurements were the highest for the site since 2005, when they recorded 77.1 inches of snow depth and a water content of 29.9 inches.
While skiers and snowboarders might appreciate the over-70-inch base depth, Gehrke was quick to clarify the water volume is far more critical.
“Doing comparisons on depth are pointless,” he explained. “It can vary so dramatically. We can come out here next week and our depth could be 70 inches and our water content wouldn’t have changed.”
‘FOR BETTER OR WORSE’
Officials with the California DWR still caution a single season of strong snowfall doesn’t mean the end of the drought. Most state reservoirs will continue to be below average. Residents should continue to conserve water.
As to what the current measurements mean moving forward, it’s hard to say. Beyond the last four years of drought, historically the state has had substantial fluctuations in precipitation year after year.
“It’s a feature, for better or worse, of California,” Gehrke said. “Winters are these extremes. It’s feast or famine. If we have a wet year this year, we don’t know what next year could be. There’s no correlation winter to winter.”
It also remains to be seen what the rest of winter will bring. Looking at the last 65 years of recorded averages, there are a number of years in which the percentage of average water content dropped between February and April.
Forecasters, however, continue to be optimistic with the strong El Niño weather pattern.
“(Forecasters) are still hanging on a strong El Niño,” Gehrke continued. “Some El Niño prognosticators think that it will come on more strongly as we move through into the spring.”
RESORTS TOP 300 INCHES OF SNOWFALL
What’s good news for refilling reservoirs has been great news for Tahoe Basin ski areas so far. Kirkwood Mountain Resort, Sierra-at-Tahoe and Northstar are each among area resorts that have topped the 300 inch mark for total to-date snowfall.
“It’s a great time to be back in Tahoe,” Heavenly spokesman Kevin Cooper said Monday. “El Niño is not backing down, and we’re going into February and March, which are (typically) two big months.”
Following last weekend’s storm, Kirkwood was reporting 304 total inches of snowfall. Sierra-at-Tahoe resort spokeswoman Thea Hardy said the resort was reporting 310 inches season-to-date. Last year, Sierra reported 123 inches for the entire season.
Cooper said Kirkwood’s multi-year average — which had fallen slightly due to recent low snow years — is 395 inches for the season.