Survey paints bleak picture of Sierra snowpack

On Tuesday morning, Frank Gehrke was standing at 8,500 feet elevation, looking down on the Tahoe Drainage area, near Lake Lois in the northern Sierra Nevada.

In his shirt sleeves, with the temperature about 50 degrees, Gehrke was fixing a snow sensor, a device that gives constant information about the snowpack to the California Department of Water Resources, Gehrke's employer.

While he was working at fixing the sensor, Gehrke was worried about the snowpack. He has been part of the state's snow survey team since 1981, and this year is one of the worst he's seen.

"This feels and looks like it's a mid-April snowpack instead of a mid-February one," Gehrke said.

The official snow survey results from the department show a snowpack in the Sierra that's only 61 percent of normal. Every month, from January through May, a manual snow survey is done by the department, according to Don Strickland, an information officer with the public affairs office of the department.

In addition, snow sensors are spread throughout the Sierra, sending information about snow and rain daily to the state.

In the northern Sierra, the snow is only at 46 percent of normal. In the central Sierra, it's at 59 percent, and in the southern Sierra, the pack is at 62 percent of normal.

Snow surveying began in the early 1900s, with Lake Tahoe one of the first sites in the United States that was surveyed. Now the snow surveys are done as a cooperative effort among state, national and private agencies.

There are about 50 teams that check the snowpack, Strickland said, and the teams take snow samples from places throughout the Sierra Nevada.

One of the main reasons the snowpack is checked is to see how much water the state water project can give to its contractors, Strickland said. There are 29 water and irrigation districts that get water from the state water project. Some of those water districts are on the Westside of the San Joaquin Valley, including the Oak Flat Water District in Patterson.

"Right now, those districts are looking at getting only 15 percent of their normal allocation of water," Strickland said.

More bad news may be coming from the federal government, Strickland said. He's heard that the Central Valley Project, a federal program that provides water to water districts on the Westside of the county, will be telling those districts they are getting no water at all this year.

Although the snowpack numbers are in the tank right now, there's a little hope on the horizon. A storm is expected to hit California on Thursday, bringing rain to the Valley and snow to higher elevations.

Cindy Bean, a forecaster for the National Weather Service in Hanford, said the high pressure that has been parked over California will be shifting to the east, allowing some storms to get through.

Bean said that the storm should bring about a half-inch of rain to the Valley floor, but the snow elevation will be high, at about 6,500 feet to start, falling to 5,000 feet by Thursday night.

Bean said there may be another weather system coming next week, but it doesn't look strong at this point.

The lack of rainfall has already hit cattle ranchers this year. Grasses in the foothills the ranchers depend on for winter feed are almost nonexistent this year.

While the water situation looks gloomy, there's still some optimism. David Robinson, the agriculture commissioner for Merced County, said it's still in the middle of the rainfall season, so there's still hope.

"We would expect rainfall in February and March," Robinson said. "But right now, it's not looking good."

Gehrke agreed. He said dry autumns and below-normal snow in the mountains so far spell bad news for everyone.

"If we have a March like last year, it's looking pretty grim," Gehrke said.

Reporter Carol Reiter can be reached at (209) 385-2486 or creiter@mercedsun-star.com.

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