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#267 TAHOE-SIERRA DROUGHT

TAHOE NUGGET #267: TAHOE-SIERRA DROUGHT The first significant winter storm in nearly 2 months delivered heavy rain to the Tahoe-Sierra on Thursday followed by lowering snow levels over the past 24 hours. Considering rainfall plus the new snow’s liquid content, nearly 3 inches of water drenched the high country near the Sierra Crest. Some locations on the West Slope picked up more than 5 inches or rain.

TAHOE NUGGET #267: TAHOE-SIERRA DROUGHT

The first significant winter storm in nearly
2 months delivered heavy rain to the Tahoe-Sierra on Thursday followed by lowering
snow levels over the past 24 hours. Considering rainfall plus the new
snow’s liquid content, nearly 3 inches of water drenched the high country near
the Sierra Crest. Some locations on the West Slope picked up more than 5 inches or rain.

Snowfall amounts were a bit disappointing due
to the warm nature of the storm: much of the moisture fell as rain below 7,500
feet. Lake Tahoe resorts reported totals of 8 to 12 inches of new snow, with a maximum at
Heavenly Valley ski area where 2 feet fell on its upper mountain. Despite the storm, California’s snowpack is still only about 12% of normal for this time of year. 

This winter storm would normally be worth
little mention, but in an extremely dry winter like this one, the desiccated Sierra
watershed needs every drop or flake. The natural snow will enhance existing skiing
and boarding terrain already open due to snowmaking, but it is unlikely to make
much of a difference off-piste and in the trees. 

Northern California receives the bulk of its precipitation between Thanksgiving and Easter and these wet months are critical for establishing the Sierra snowpack which provides much of the Golden State’s water supply. The weather this winter has been so dry that Sacramento just set an all-time record for consecutive days with no precipitation during the rainy season — 52 days. (From Dec. 7, 2013 to Jan. 28, 2014.)

 

In late January 2014, the Sierra Crest has bare-bones snow cover. Looking north from Alpine Meadows ski area past Squaw Valley and towards Donner Pass.

North and east facing slopes hold snow better than west or south aspects. Depicted is Alpine Bowl at the Alpine Meadows resort. Best to stay on the groomed runs.

 

The 2014 Tahoe ski season has been mostly a man-made affair with pressurized snow guns saving the day. Rumors are spreading that Vail-owned Northstar-at-Tahoe has run out of water and its snowmaking operations will be limited moving forward.

Much has been made of the extremely dry nature of the 2013 calendar year as the driest in many parts of California. However, hydrologists, meteorologists, and water management agencies all use valuations based on a “water year” which better reflects the nature of California’s Mediterranean climate of hot, dry summers and cool, wet winters. The use of a calendar year may not be consistent  with how water is measured seasonally, but it does illustrate the unprecedented lack of precipitation over the past year or two.

This infrared satellite image from 4 kilometers perfectly illustrates the stubborn high pressure ridge that has been keeping California sunny and dry for nearly 2 years now. The semi-permanent ridge normally migrates south or splits during winter months to allow weather systems into the West Coast. Note how Pacific storms ride up and over the clockwise circulation of the high and then plunge south into the heartland of the nation. This is part of the atmospheric pattern that has delivered record cold and snow to the Midwest and East Coast this winter.  

Skiers are complaining that 2014 is the worst winter in memory. Note the lack of cover away from the man-made snowmaking at Alpine Meadows from two weeks ago.

Just two years ago, however, snow conditions were even worse at Alpine Meadows at the same time of year.

Donner Ski Ranch near Donner Pass has yet to open this winter due to lack of snow cover.

Boreal Mountain Resort near Donner Pass relies heavily on snowmaking and slope grooming which has paid off handsomely this winter. Billed as the Tahoe resort closest to Sacramento, Boreal has the greatest percentage of terrain open in the Tahoe-Sierra.

It’s been bone-dry in Southern California also, but while Northern California communities are already into voluntary 20% water rationing with possible mandatory restrictions soon to come, the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California is at record storage throughout its whole system. Lawns there will stay green, pools full, and cars washed and shiny. The dichotomy is made possible by massive water imports from Northern California and the Colorado River. The issue has been a contentions issue between the two regions for more than a century.

UPDATE! Today (1-31-14) California announced that, due to severe drought conditions, it is halting all water deliveries through its massive State Water Project until further notice. The system supplies 25 million residents and irrigates 750,000 acres of farmland. The total cancellation is unprecedented in the State Water Project’s 54-year history. 

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By Mark McLaughlin

Mark McLaughlin is an award-winning, nationally published author, photographer and professional speaker with 7 books and more than 900 articles in print. Mark has lived at Lake Tahoe for 40+ years and is a popular lecturer and experienced field trip guide. Mark has been a frequent guest on National Public Radio and has appeared as an expert consultant on CNN, The History Channel, The Weather Channel, the BBC, and in many historical documentaries.

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