Snow-surveying crews across the Sierra are seeing bad news up close this week. California has about half a snowpack.
Skiing, snowshoeing or riding helicopters, the crews are making their way to high-elevation meadows for the most important snow measurement of the year.
April 1 is the unofficial end of the snowfall season -- this year, following a miserably dry January, February and March. City officials, industry leaders and farmers will get a good idea of how much water to expect when the snow melts.
Reports won't be finished for a few days, but California already has reason to be disappointed. Big storms in November and December built the snowpack to 140 percent of average on Jan. 1. Now automated snow sensors show it is at 54 percent.
The snowpack was only 46 percent of average at this point last March -- meaning the state had two bad years in a row. There's no state drought emergency because reservoirs are holding about an average amount of water.
But the "d" word is filtering into conversations among weather experts.
"We're in a meteorological drought," said Paul Iniguez of the National Weather Service in Hanford. "We had record-setting dry months for some places in California during January and February," the meteorologist said.
Conditions in Merced and the rest of the region have been very dry this rainfall season despite a series of powerful storms that initially brought above-average precipitation.
This month, little more than a quarter of an inch of rain has been recorded as of Wednesday. Normal precipitation for March is 1.80 inches. This season, 6.52 inches of rain has been recorded, compared to 10.56 inches at this point in a normal rainfall season, records show.
At of March 21, the Merced Irrigation District reported that inflow to Lake McClure was reduced to 200,000 acre-feet from a March 12 projection of 230,000 acre-feet.
The lake is holding about 465,000 acre-feet of water, about 45 percent of capacity. An acre-foot is the amount of water it takes to cover one acre one foot deep.
To deal with the lack of water, the MID decided on an early start to the irrigation season, put limits on water deliveries and instituted a program that will allow growers to buy additional groundwater.
The National Weather Service is forecasting a chance of rain in the valley this weekend, but it does not look like a powerful storm. That has been a familiar forecast over the last three months.
There is no easy explanation for the big change in the weather pattern since December. El Niño and La Niña did not influence the weather this year. Storms have been blocked over the last three months.
The result has been dramatic. The Yosemite Valley headquarters in Yosemite National Park averages nearly 13 inches of precipitation for January and February combined. This year, the two-month total is 1.41 inches.
Longtime hydrographer Henry French with Pacific Gas & Electric Co. said the snow looks like it usually does in May and sometimes June.
"Sure looks like a half-precipitation year," he said.