Bad December memories of drought snowpacks

Posted by Mark Grossi on December 24, 2013 

A skimpy snowpack in Yosemite's high country this year.


The December headline in The Fresno Bee said a third year of drought could propel California into a crisis. The headline was written 25 Decembers ago.

As droughts go, you could cut and paste a version of that headline every few decades in this state. The haunting thing about the December 1988 headline? It was written in the third year of a six-year drought.

Remembering the panic spreading each year in the San Joaquin Valley's farm country during those times, I've been avoiding the statewide snowpack numbers this month.

I was waiting until a big storm made them look better. The big storm never came, so I peeked at the numbers. Now I wish I had waited until Groundhog Day.

The southern Sierra Nevada -- usually the drier part of the 400-mile mountain range -- has twice the water content as the northern Sierra. That's really bad, but it gets worse.

At this time last year, the Sierra was 140% of average with 11.9 inches of water content in its snowpack. It gave the state a little cushion for the intense dry spell that followed.

But this December, the snowpack statewide is only 23% of average and two inches of water content. 

Scientists and water managers often stop me on this rant. They call and say it's late December. There's a lot of the winter wet season ahead. We won't necessarily have another intense dry spell.

All true, but it's still starting to feel a little like 1988. If you think the water fights are loud now, imagine how much worse they will get if this drought keeps going a few more years, as it 25 years ago.

In December 1990, Fresno Bee writer Jeanie Borba started a story like this: "'Tis the season when it should be raining, only it isn't. Hasn't much for four years already."

That was written just a few months after the devastating wildfires that closed down Yosemite National Park in August.

Just a few years later, wildlife leaders acknowledged the collapse of fisheries in Northern California rivers.

Aside from the scary human impacts, droughts set up nature for a variety of  events, not the least of which are destructive wildfires and dying fish. 

So my Christmas wish: That I can resist looking at those snowpack numbers again until a line of storms is pummeling California with rain and snow.

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