A new snow survey shows the tiny snowpack above the Kings River is 4.1% of the average size expected for the season -- a far cry from the 65% it should be, say water leaders.
In the southern Sierra survey, five of eight sites had no snow whatsoever, said the Kings River Water Association, which performed the measurements this week.
The Kings, which sends water into 1 million acre-foot Pine Flat Reservoir, might break a 90-year-old record this year for lowest snow-melt runoff in a season. Farms, cities and industries will suffer severe cutbacks if the storms don't start soon.
"This year's Kings River water supply is going to be solely dependent upon what precipitation falls between now and late spring," said Kings watermaster Steve Haugen.
A storm is forecast Thursday to finally break an eight-week dry stretch in one of the most intense drought years on record. But it probably won't make much difference, Haugen said. The watershed is bone dry, meaning it will absorb most of the moisture, he said.
The best snowpack conditions were found at Bench Lake, elevation 10,600 feet near the Sierra crest. The snow water content was 4.6 inches, which is 17% of the average for April 1, the end of the precipitation season.
Overall in the Kings River watershed, the water content in the snowpack is estimated at 1.1 inches, tracking just below the dramatic drought measurement on Feb. 1, 1976, which was 1.2 inches. The April 1 average is 25.6 inches.
The state Department of Water Resources expects to see similar results Thursday in surveys along other parts of the Sierra Nevada.
Remote electronic readings Wednesday pegged the statewide snowpack at a dismal 10% of average for this time of year, and only 6% of April 1 expectations.
"While we can only hope for wet weather, we can act positively to conserve as much water as possible," said water resources director Mark Cowin.
At least for a day, the weather turns wet.
National Weather Service meteorologist Gary Sanger said there is a 40% chance of rain in Fresno Thursday. By Friday, the chance for rain drops to 20%.
In the Sierra, a winter weather advisory will be in effect until 4 a.m. Friday, with about a foot of snow expected near Yosemite and 5 to 6 inches near Kings Canyon National Park. Sanger said the snow level will start at 7,000 feet before dropping to 5,000 feet Thursday night into Friday morning -- but by then the heaviest snow will have fallen.
Sanger said the ridge of high pressure causing the dry spell has moved south slightly but hasn't budged enough.
"Every time we think we got rid of the ridge -- it's like the Dr. Seuss story, the cat comes back," Sanger said.
Bee staff writer Jacob Rayburn contributed to this story. The reporter can be reached at (559) 441-6316, firstname.lastname@example.org or @markgrossi on Twitter.