Season’s Final Sierra Snow Survey — Without the Snow

Frank Gehrke, chief snow surveyor for the California Department of Resources, talks to reporters after May 1 survey found only a snowless meadow. (Zack Cunningham/DWR)

Frank Gehrke, chief snow surveyor for the California Department of Resources, talks to reporters after May 1 survey found only a snowless meadow. (Zack Cunningham/DWR)

Every winter, the California Department of Water Resources offers the public a little piece of what you might call outdoors theater. Once a month, the department sends a crew to a picturesque spot near Echo Summit, near U.S. 50 high above Lake Tahoe. The crew measures the snow, then tells reporters how much there is. Then the reporters tell the rest of us the news.

More snow is good, because it will melt when the weather warms up, then run down streams and rivers into the state’s reservoirs. More water is good because that means there’s enough for the farms that use about 80 percent of California water, and there’s enough for the rest of us to water our lawns, wash our cars, and just run the tap without thinking a whole lot about it. There’s even enough water in good years to let nature have some.

You might have heard that this is not one of those good years. Thursday, the Department of Water Resources gave us a reading on how not-good this year really is.

Here’s how Doug Carlson, an information officer at the department, put it when he spoke to KQED Science intern Shara Tonn on Thursday: “This is the final snow survey of the year today. Didn’t find much snow at all.”

Human surveyors, who these days do little more than replicate what electronic sensors throughout the Sierra are recording every hour of every day during the snow season, found a snowless meadow when they visited a traditional measurement site near Echo Summit. The DWR reported that the physical measurements combined with electronic monitoring determined that the water content of snow throughout the Sierra Nevada is just 18 percent of average for May 1. In the northern Sierra, where melting snow is counted on to help fill the state’s biggest reservoirs, the report is more dire: the water content of the snowpack there is just 7 percent of average.

Carlson said it’s the fourth-scantiest snowpack the state’s ever recorded. The top three: 1977, which found just 3 percent of average water content, 1990, and 2013 — yes, just last year.

State and federal water managers have already reduced allocations to farms and city water customers to near zero, figuring they need to be careful with the state’s meager supply of stored water. According to the Sacramento Bee’s Matt Weiser, officials may begin to take more drastic action soon. Weiser reported Wednesday that the State Water Resources Control Board may soon order “hundreds of water agencies, farmers and other property owners to stop diverting water from rivers in which they have longstanding water rights.”

Rivers throughout the state could be affected, including the entire Sacamento-San Joaquin basin. The city of Sacramento could face a curtailment order as soon as May 15, Weiser reports, and strict rationaing orders could follow.

(What’s a snow survey look like? Here’s a video of one from last month, after a storm had dropped a pile of fresh powder on the survey site):


Dan Brekke

Dan Brekke is a blogger, reporter and editor for KQED News, responsible for online breaking news coverage of topics ranging from California water issues to the Bay Area's transportation challenges. In a newsroom career that began in Chicago in 1972, Dan has worked as a city and foreign/national editor for The San Francisco Examiner, editor at Wired News, deputy editor at Wired magazine, managing editor at TechTV as well as for several Web startups.

Since joining KQED in 2007, Dan has reported, edited and produced both radio and online features and breaking news pieces. He has shared in two Society of Professional Journalists Norcal Excellence in Journalism awards — for his 2012 reporting on a KQED Science series on water and power in California, and in 2014, for KQED's comprehensive reporting on the south Napa earthquake.

In addition to his 44 years of on-the-job education, Dan is a lifelong student of history and is still pursuing an undergraduate degree.

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