Water watchers take first snow pack measure
December 29, 2004
SACRAMENTO – Despite flash flood warnings in Southern California and chain requirements across the Sierra Nevada, the first snow pack measurements of the year Wednesday showed levels below last year at this time, though still above average.
Unusual fall storms let many Sierra ski resorts open around Halloween this year, but they’ve seen little snow the last month.
“That early snowfall, day after day without further accumulation, it starts to drop,” said Jeff Cohen, a spokesman for the California Department of Water Resources.
The snow pack was 110 percent of normal Wednesday, down from 125 percent a year ago. It was 110 percent in the northern Sierra; 107 percent in the central range; and 124 percent in the southern portion of the 400-mile range. That compares to 139 percent, 119 percent and 121 percent last year at this time for the same regions.
“It’s not overwhelming, but this series of storms could really affect things. It’s just like you would expect: January and February are the snow machines, so we hope to have a good snow pack,” Cohen said.
More than a third of California’s drinking and irrigation water comes from Sierra snow, while snow-fed hydroelectric plants produce about a quarter of California’s power.
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A new storm predicted through New Year’s Eve could dump 2-4 feet in higher elevations and make traveling difficult. Chains already were required over major Sierra highways Wednesday from the first storm in the sequence.
There was flash flooding early Wednesday over areas of the San Diego mountains burned in last year’s fires, and the potential for mud slides, the National Weather Service warned. Several Southern California highways were closed due to mud, snow or flooding.
The danger of more widespread flooding led the Federal Emergency Management Agency to issue safety tips, and warn that every California county has flooding potential. There have been three large flood disasters in California the last decade, with 20,000 flood insurance claims and $244 million in insurance payments over that time, the agency said.
Reservoirs were beginning to fill, the Department of Water Resources said.
To the north, Shasta Lake was at 80 percent of its average level, or 51 percent of capacity, while Lake Oroville was at 71 percent of average and 46 percent of capacity.
East of Sacramento, Folsom Lake held 74 percent of its average water depth, or 36 percent of its capacity. But the figures dwindled farther south, with Pine Flat Reservoir in Kings County at 44 percent of average and 19 percent of capacity.
After several dry years, the service’s long range seasonal forecast predicts above normal precipitation for southern and central California this winter, and average or below average precipitation in the north state.
But weather patterns remain uncertain this early in the season, with final snow pack measurements three months away, said Water Resources’ Cohen.