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Snow news is mostly good news

WISHON RESERVOIR -- The snowpack east of Fresno is more than twice the size of last year's. That's good news -- but water experts had been hoping for a little more.

A snow survey crew Thursday provided evidence that a dry March has allowed February's spectacular snowpack to melt down to average levels for this time of year.

"Don't get me wrong, this is a heck of a lot better than last year," said hydrographer Henry French of Pacific Gas & Electric Co., which has several hydroelectric reservoirs in this part of the Sierra. "But there was a lot more snow up here a month ago."

State officials said they think most reservoirs in California will fill up and provide the usual flow of water for cities, many farms and hydroelectric projects.

Statewide, the Sierra snowpack is 96% of average. Last year, the Sierra snowpack was only 45% of average. So measurements this week were a welcome contrast, state officials said.

"After the dry March, I think it was better than I would have expected," said Frank Gehrke, chief of snowpack surveys for the state Department of Water Resources. "I think it's quite encouraging."

In late February, the snowpack was 130% of average in the southern Sierra. A series of storms had battered the state in January and February, but by March they had stopped.

Fresno, for instance, may finish with its fourth-lowest March rainfall total on record. The city's current total, 0.02 of an inch of rain, is the lowest March total in more than 40 years.

But Statum Meadow, at 8,300 feet, still looked like a postcard of winter Thursday. The meadow, about five miles east of Wishon Reservoir, has been used for many decades to measure the snowpack.

Hydrographers French and Chris Sanderson, who are flown several times each year to Statum in a helicopter, are careful to measure between two lodgepole pine trees that are about 100 yards apart. They say it is important to measure in the same place each year to reflect trends and correctly establish averages.

The measurement Thursday determined the meadow has 41 inches of water in its snowpack.

"If it all melted today, we would have that much water coming down to the Valley," French said.

The hydrographers used a century-old method for measuring the snowpack -- jamming a hollow, metal pole into the snow and pulling out a core from drifts 12 to 14 feet deep. They weigh the core to figure out how much water it contains.

The bottom of the pole came out of the snowpack dripping with freezing water.

"That means the snow is beginning to melt," French said. "It's going down to the rivers and streams."

PG&E will capture the water at Wishon and other reservoirs. Huge turbines will turn with the force of the flow, creating electricity.

There are big plans for the water downstream, too. After it passes through hydro projects, the water is captured again at lower reservoirs, such as Pine Flat and Millerton.

Much of it will be used on farm fields, but some will go to supply cities, such as Orange Cove.

But farmers on the west side of the San Joaquin Valley are facing cutbacks this year that have little to do with the snowpack. West siders buy Northern California snowmelt after it passes through pumps at the troubled Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta.

Authorities are cutting deliveries to 45%, which they say will help prevent tiny fish called the delta smelt from being sucked into the pumps and killed.

And there may not be many more wet storms through the rest of spring, said Rudy Cruz, a National Weather Service specialist in Reno, Nev.

He said no significant storms are on the horizon. While the region may see light rain or snow in the next few weeks, most of the heavy weather is passing to the north.

"This time of year, things are pretty much done in the Sierra," Cruz said.

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