Early season snowpack falls short across the West

Nevada and Idaho are the only Western states above their historic averages.

 

On April 1 this year, a snow survey in California’s Sierra Nevadas near Echo Peak had to be conducted on bare grass — an unprecedented April Fool’s joke from Mother Nature. Fast forward to December, and the same area has had modest improvement — now 53 percent of normal — but go just south near Sequoia National Park, and snow survey sites are buried, reporting nearly 200 percent snowpack for early winter. Farther south still, the change is dramatic; sites in the Central Valley that would typically be measuring a few centimeters by now, haven’t seen any snow.

And that pattern is holding up across the West. Taken as a whole, Western snowpack measurements in early December paint a widely varied picture — some places are far above historic normals, while others are still far below. For watersheds, that means things are looking better than they have been, but we’re not out of the woods yet.

According to the Natural Resources Conservation Service’s SNOTEL sites, which measure snow depth at thousands of stations nation-wide, only two Western states — Nevada and Idaho — are above the historic benchmark for “normal” at this time of year.

That means the other Western states are adding to their water deficit, especially in places that have experienced multi-year drought, such as California.

“There’s a tremendous deficit that’s built up,” says Alan Haynes, a hydrologist for the California Nevada River Forecast Center. “It would take three times the normal precipitation in just one year to recover the shortage of water.” But, if early winter weather patterns are any indication, precipitation is falling at fortuitous locations. While the Central Valley is still mostly dry, many survey sites in the Sierra Nevada Mountains and Tahoe Basin are at or above normal for this time of year. That’s good news for the state’s water supply and reservoirs, which will swell when snowpack melts in the spring.

Still, hydrologists say it’s too early to tell if this winter will ultimately fall above or below the average snowpack levels and make up for the shortfalls.

In California, the snow-water equivalent, or the depth of water in the snowpack if melted entirely, currently measures about 90 percent of historic readings. Compared to the past four years, that’s a significant improvement. Haynes says a few more winter storms in the Sierra, where more than half of the state’s agriculture and urban water users get their supply, could put the state above normal. 

Nevada, Idaho, Alaska and Colorado have had nearly normal to above normal snowpack readings so far, according to state data compiled by SNOTEL. The states’ overall averages, however, can be misleading, Haynes says. It’s important to look at where the snow is falling in the states. As long as precipitation is falling within important watersheds for municipal water supply, areas that have been dry will still benefit from more fortunate areas. In Colorado, the Rocky Mountains, which provide water for the bulk of the state’s urban population, have had above normal early season snowpack readings, but a cluster of low readings near the Gunnison National Forest on the Western slope have brought the state’s average just slightly below normal. 

A snow pit dug during a snow survey in Colorado in early December 2015.
Colorado Avalanche Information Center/Jason Konigsberg

So far, Montana is lagging for early season snowpack in the West. The state has the lowest reading in the region — only 73 percent of the historic average. In Nevada, much of the state is experiencing the opposite. The state’s average snowpack readings are 117 percent of normal, and much of the early winter precipitation has fallen in the western edge of the state near Truckee and Tahoe, which bodes well for reservoirs in neighboring California. 

Other parts of the region are beginning to see problems from too much early season snow. Snowpack readings in the Pacific Northwest are above normal and at lower elevations above-normal rainfall is predicted. NOAA is telling residents to prepare for flooding through the Bellingham, Seattle, Olympia and Yakima areas for the remainder of December. Already, numerous highways have been closed from landslides and floods in Washington, and a woman in Oregon drowned after her vehicle was submerged in a flood about 60 miles northwest of Portland. 

And of course, the question remains: When will El Niño show up? The weather anomaly, as High Country News reported recently, is set to impact most heavily parts of Southern California and the Pacific Northwest, with higher precipitation and warmer temperatures. Since the first week of November, the Sierras have been in a cycle of storms that have brought snow each week. “It’s impossible to tie one storm — or even a series of storms — to El Niño. It’s too bold to say these storms are a symptom of that phenomenon,” says Randall Osterhuber, a research at the UC Berkeley Central Sierra Snow Lab. 

But overall, NOAA long-range forecasts call for above-average snowfall for Southern California, Haynes says. In Colorado, Nevada, Idaho and Washington, the bulk of winter precipitation is expected in January through March. Osterhuber says late season flurries that maintain snowpack through the spring months are crucial across the region. “When snowpacks don’t even make it to mid-March, that’s a huge problem,” he says. “California has tremendous demands on its water resources, and we rely on the Sierras. After four years of minuscule snowpack, we need this.”

Paige Blankenbuehler is an editorial intern at High Country News. She tweets

High Country News Classifieds
  • WATERSHED RESTORATION DIRECTOR
    $58k-$70k + benefits to oversee watershed restoration projects that fulfill our strategic goals across urban and rural areas within the bi-national Santa Cruz and San...
  • CUSTOMER SERVICE ASSISTANT - (PART-TIME)
    High Country News, an award-winning media organization covering the communities and environment of the Western United States, seeks a part-time Customer Service Assistant, based at...
  • OPERATIONS DIRECTOR
    We are a Santa Fe-based nonprofit that builds resilience on arid working lands. We foster ecological, economic, and social health through education, innovation, and collaboration....
  • COMMUNITY ORGANIZER
    Come work alongside everyday Montanans to project our clean air, water, and build thriving communities! Competitive salary, health insurance, pension, generous vacation time and sabbatical....
  • CAMPAIGN MANAGER
    Oregon Natural Desert Association (ONDA), a nonprofit conservation organization dedicated to protecting, defending and restoring Oregon's high desert, seeks a Campaign Manager to works as...
  • HECHO DEPUTY DIRECTOR
    Hispanics Enjoying Camping, Hunting, and the Outdoors (HECHO) was created in 2013 to help fulfill our duty to conserve and protect our public lands for...
  • REGIONAL REPRESENTATIVE, COLUMBIA CASCADES
    The Regional Representative serves as PCTA's primary staff on the ground along the trail working closely with staff, volunteers, and nonprofit and agency partners. This...
  • FINANCE AND OPERATIONS DIRECTOR
    The Montana Land Reliance (MLR) seeks a full-time Finance and Operations Director to manage the internal functions of MLR and its nonprofit affiliates. Key areas...
  • DIRECTOR OF CONSERVATION
    The Nature Conservancy is recruiting for a Director of Conservation. Provides strategic leadership and support for all of the Conservancy's conservation work in Arizona. The...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The Amargosa Conservancy (AC), a conservation nonprofit dedicated to standing up for water and biodiversity in the Death Valley region, seeks an executive director to...
  • BIG BASIN SENIOR PROJECT PLANNER - CLIMATE ADAPTATION & RESILIENCE
    Parks California Big Basin Senior Project Planner - Climate Adaptation & Resilience ORGANIZATION BACKGROUND Parks California is a new organization working to ensure that our...
  • SCIENCE PROJECT MANAGER
    About Long Live the Kings (LLTK) Our mission is to restore wild salmon and steelhead and support sustainable fishing in the Pacific Northwest. Since 1986,...
  • HUMAN RESOURCES GENERALIST
    Honor the Earth is an affirmative action/equal opportunity employer and does not discriminate based on identity. Indigenous people, people of color, Two-Spirit or LGBTQA+ people,...
  • NEW BOOK BY AWARD-WINNING WILDLIFE BIOLOGIST, BRUCE SMITH
    In a perilous place at the roof of the world, an orphaned mountain goat is rescued from certain death by a mysterious raven.This middle-grade novel,...
  • MOUNTAIN LOTS FOR SALE
    Multiple lots in gated community only 5 miles from Great Sand Dunes National Park. Seasonal flowing streams. Year round road maintenance.
  • RURAL ACREAGE OUTSIDE SILVER CITY, NM
    Country living just minutes from town! 20 acres with great views makes a perfect spot for your custom home. Nice oaks and juniper. Cassie Carver,...
  • A FIVE STAR FOREST SETTING WITH SECLUSION AND SEPARATENESS
    This home is for a discerning buyer in search of a forest setting of premier seclusion & separateness. Surrounded on all sides by USFS land...
  • CARPENTER WANTED
    CARPENTER WANTED. Come to Ketchikan and check out the Rainforest on the coast, HIke the shorelines, hug the big trees, watch deer in the muskeg...
  • CAUCASIAN OVCHARKA PUPPIES
    Strong loyal companions. Ready to protect your family and property. Proven against wolves and grizzlies. Imported bloodlines. Well socialized.
  • ENVIRONMENTAL GEOPHYSICS
    "More Data, Less Digging" Find groundwater and reduce excavation costs!