Big Snow-Maker Storm Improves California’s Water Outlook

(CN) – California’s first major storm of the winter this past week made a sizable dent in the prospects of another drought, but more precipitation is needed for the state to approach an average water year.

California water official Frank Gehrke measured the snowpack at 41.1 inches at the Phillips Station just southwest of Lake Tahoe during the California Department of Water’s third snow survey of the season.

“This represents a huge boost to what we had been seeing before the storms hit,” Gehrke said after taking the measurements. “Another encouraging aspect is that forecasting are calling for more storms this coming weekend. If they are big enough it gets us to shouting distance of a decent water year.”

The 41-inch reading is only 39 percent of the historic average for snowpack at this stage of the winter, but Gehrke said the prospect of California falling back into drought would have been real had a large storm system not dumped rain and snow across California from Thursday into Sunday.

“We have gained substantially from what we had a week ago,” he said. “Now we need about two more of these to be able to get to an average water year.”

In February, the same snow survey revealed just 2.1 inches of snowpack, a paltry 17 percent of historical average.

The cold system that trundled across California last week was particularly welcome in bone-dry Southern California, and it failed to trigger mudslides that had been predicted. In January, a more modest storm brought intense rainfall to Santa Barbara and Ventura counties, the scene of the Thomas Fire, and the lack of vegetation to stabilize topsoil set off a series of fatal mudflows that killed 22 people and destroyed several structures.

While the past weekend storm was innocuous by comparison, not everyone escaped unscathed.

At the Squaw Valley ski resort on Friday, Wenyu Zhang, 42, was found dead after he went missing the previous evening. Another unidentified snowboarder died at China Peak east of Fresno when he plunged head-first into a large pile of powder and suffocated.

Mammoth Mountain and Squaw Valley also experienced large-scale avalanches on Friday, much to the disappointment of a crowded field of skiers and snowboarders eager to take advantage of the freshly fallen snow.

Two men and three women had to be extricated from an avalanche field near the Olympic Lady chairlift at Squaw Valley, with the resort deploying more than 100 ski patrollers and avalanche dogs in the rescue effort.

Gehrke said the cold storm produced light snow with about 10 percent water density. While ideal for powder turns on the ski slopes, it makes the snowpack particularly prone to slab avalanches.

“The avalanche danger is pretty extreme right now,” he said.

But the cold storm was crucial for California, which has seen too many others falling as rain instead of snow in the Sierra. A robust Sierra snowpack provides 30 percent of the state’s water.

The ideal scenario calls for an incremental melting of a healthy snowpack into the spring and summer to replenish the system of reservoirs that feed farmers and households throughout the dry season.

While California is a long way from that scenario, the latest storm helped.


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