Water & Drought

April 1, 2014

Storms turn Sierra white -- but too little, too late

Late March storms dressed up the southern Sierra Nevada in white, but the snowpack was still virtually a no-show below 7,500 feet, the Kings River watermaster reported Tuesday.

"The percentages below 7,500 are in the single digits," said watermaster Steve Haugen of the Kings River Water Association. "It's just what has fallen in the last two storms."

For the last week, hydrologists have been measuring the disappointing snowpack all along the 400-mile mountain range, generally finding about a third of average water content. It is the smallest snowpack in the last 25 years.

April 1 is the end of the most productive storms of the season. After a dry December and January, February and March storms brought some relief to the state. But the three-year drought continues as reservoirs, rainfall totals and the snowpack remain critically low.

The northern Sierra, where much of California's snow and rain occurs, was a dismal 23% of average Tuesday morning, according to the state Department of Water Resources.

"We're already seeing farmland fallowed and cities scrambling for water supplies," said water resources director Mark Cowin. "We can hope that conditions improve, but time is running out and conservation is the only tool we have against nature's whim."

How dry was the winter in the Sierra above the San Joaquin River? The automated readings at Florence Lake, a hydroelectric reservoir at 7,200 feet in the Sierra National Forest, showed no snowpack at all for the first two months of the year.

The average snow depth for April 1 since 1930 is 7.6 inches at Florence. Snow surveyors will inform the state if any snow has accumulated over the last month.

Farther south, the Kings River's snowmelt runoff this year is estimated to be 27% of average this year. It amounts to a little more than 270,000 acre-feet of water from a snowpack that usually delivers more than 1 million acre-feet between April and July.

Haugen said the snowpack above 10,000 feet is 50% of average. But it accounts for only about a quarter of the snowmelt for the Kings River.

At 9,500 feet, the snowpack is 25% of average and drops off quickly below that elevation.

"We got lucky with these storms the last few days," Haugen said. "But it's still not good up there. We need some more storms in April and May."

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