ECHO SUMMIT, Calif. — An unwelcome three-week winter dry spell left the California snowpack at just 83 percent of average, a setback for the state as it tries to break out of record drought, state snow surveyors found Tuesday.
In an icy meadow in California’s central Sierra Nevada, state surveyor Frank Gehrke plunged poles into snowbanks, measuring how much snow was lost to a February with record warm temperatures and little rain.
Californians depend on snowfall for a third of their water and have hoped this year’s strong El Niño system would deliver heavy snow and rain.
After a wet December and January, however, sunshine and blue skies returned, bringing temperatures in the 90s to Southern California last month.
The year had a “very good start, and then ... February just did not come through,” Gehrke said.
Gehrke’s measuring site showed snowpack at 105 percent of average, compared to 130 percent at the same spot the month before.
California-wide, snowpack Tuesday was at 83 percent of normal, officials said.
California last year marked its driest four-year spell on record, leading Gov. Jerry Brown last April to order mandatory 25 percent water conservation for cities and towns. The conservation order remains in effect.
Officials say bringing the state out of drought would require snowpack at 150 percent of average by April 1.
December, January and February typically are the wettest months in California. However, late spring storm patterns dubbed “March Miracles” helped ease dry spells in 1991 and 1995, state Department of Water Resources officials noted.
Californians can still hope for such a miracle this week, when changing weather patterns promise to send a series of storms over the state, the National Weather Service said.
Forecasters expect as much as 7 inches of rain in Northern California in the coming days and heavy snow in the mountains.
The National Weather Service in Reno said Wednesday an active weather pattern begins this weekend as a series of moderate to strong atmospheric river type storms impact the Sierra this weekend and into next week.
NWS said precipitation may begin as early as Friday night with snow levels remaining near 7,500-8,000 feet through Saturday. The main push of moisture is expected Saturday night into Sunday morning where snow levels will rapidly drop behind a strong cold front. Snowfall accumulations of 1- to 3-feet are possible along the Sierra crest through Monday with up to 12 inches between 6,000 to 7,000 feet.
The Weather Service, says valleys could see traffic impact during the Monday morning commute.
Snow fall for the valley floors is expected to be a couple of inches below 5,000-feet between Friday and Monday.
Also on Wednesday, Carson City, Douglas County and Lyon County were declared primary natural disaster areas due to drought by the United States Department of Agriculture. USDA Secretary recently notified Gov. Brian Sandoval of the development, the Nevada Department of Agriculture said.
In total, 12 Nevada counties have been declared as natural disaster areas due to drought intensity — severe drought, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor — during the growing season for eight or more consecutive weeks.
A disaster designation makes farm operators eligible to be considered for certain assistance from the USDA Farm Service Agency. The latest list of counties, map and information on USDA’s disaster assistance program can be found at http://disaster.fsa.usda.gov. For local assistance, contact the Nevada State FSA office at 775-857-8500.