More than 10 feet of snow lying near the summit of Mt. Rose will help mitigate a three-year drought in western Nevada, though it’s not a cure-all.
Jeff Anderson, hydrologist for USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service, said precipitation deficits for the last three years will be difficult to reverse despite a big winter.
“We’re definitely putting a dent in the deficit now that we have such a good snowpack,” he said.
But he cautioned against proclaiming the drought over. He pointed to the U.S. Drought Monitor, which, as of Jan. 24, showed western Nevada still in moderate drought conditions.
“We’ve definitely improved quite a bit already this winter,” Anderson said.
On Jan. 30, the NRCS released data on snowpacks across Nevada and the eastern Sierra as relayed by various SNOTEL (snowpack telemetry) sites. Throughout the region, snowpacks ranged from 123 percent to 269 percent of normal for the date.
The Mt. Rose site had a 128-inch snow depth and 45.1 inches of water content, representing 196 percent of the median for the date. It’s the fifth highest snowpack at the location since 1981, according to the NRCS.
The Truckee Basin snowpack came in at 181 percent of the median to date and 106 precent of the normal springtime peak. The Tahoe Basin snowpack was 191 percent of the median level and 115 percent of the normal springtime peak.
Further south, the Carson and Walker basins are setting records, according to the NRCS. The Carson Basin was 234 percent of median for the date and 144 percent of normal springtime peak. Eleven of 12 SNOTEL sites in the region were at record highs. Likewise, the Walker Basin had a snowpack at 254 percent of median for the date and 146 percent of normal springtime peak. Five out of seven SNOTEL sites in the basin were at record highs.
Anderson said because of the large snowpack, the Carson River will have the potential for a “really good runoff season.”
“High base flows through summer as snow is melting help meet irrigation demand,” he said. “The inflows can match the outflows.”
Ed James, general manager of the Carson Water Subconservancy District, agreed.
“I’m optimistic at this point it’s going to be a good year,” he said. “In the Carson, we’ll have water. It will really depend on the spring weather for how quickly it will come.”
Darren Schulz, director of Carson City Public Works, was also optimistic.
“As long as it doesn’t wash away prematurely, our river and creek water resources are off to an abnormally great start,” he said. “It is also great for replenishing aquifer levels.”
However, Schulz noted the Carson region has seen more extreme droughts mixed in with good water years.
“It does highlight also that we are getting more extreme droughts and banner water years these days,” he said. “Looking at 2017 and this year as record-breaking water years. With some extremely hot and dry years in between.”
Besides aquifers and irrigation for farmers, the snowpack will affect the summer fire season. During the drought of the last three years, large wildfires like the Dixie and Caldor fires filled western Nevada with smoke. The Sierra Nevada Conservancy reported more than 1.5 million acres in the Sierra burned in 2021, beating the record of the previous year.
Anderson said large snowpacks are generally good for forest fires but can also spur growth of cheat grass and other vegetation in the foothills.
“The fire season tends to be shorter,” he said. “But it definitely leads to more grass growth.”
According to the NRCS, the current SNOTEL system evolved from the 1930s, when the then-Soil Conservation Service was tasked with measuring snowpack in the western U.S.
“The high-elevation locations and the broad coverage of the network provide important data used by water managers, farmers, recreationists, researchers and emergency managers for natural disasters such as floods and droughts,” officials said in a news release.
For information about the NRCS in Nevada, visit https://www.nrcs.usda.gov/conservation-basics/conservation-by-state/nevada.
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