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Sierra Snowpack Melts With Dry February

Andrew Nixon / Capital Public Radio

Boreal Mountain Resort and other ski areas in California opened in November 2015. Storms in January 2016 increased Sierra Nevada snowpack water content to above normal. But a dry, warm February has diminished those gains and it is now below normal.

Andrew Nixon / Capital Public Radio

The water content in the statewide Sierra Nevada snowpack has decreased significantly due to dry conditions and record warm temperatures across California in February. 
 
Precipitation in January increased the statewide Sierra snow water content to 115 percent of normal.

But to date, the snow water content is 92 percent of normal.

022416 SIERRSASNOW Capture.jpg

While the short-term month-over-month change in the snowpack isn't so positive, compared to a year ago, (and the past four years) the current snowpack is a big improvement.

"We're pretty much right at normal to start and end the month of February," says Warning Coordination Meteorologist Michelle Mead, with the National Weather Service in Sacramento. "Yes, we've definitely seen some above-average temperatures and obviously some dry weather. But, as far as the snowpack that feeds into the water supply for California, we couldn't be doing any better than we are right now." 

Mead says that's because the relative moisture in the snowpack is about normal (95 percent of normal for Feb. 24) in the northern Sierra, where snow melt feeds into California's three largest reservoirs: Lake Shasta, Lake Oroville and Trinity Lake.

She calls those reservoirs "the three workhorses" for supply.

"We still have a ways to go to fill those reservoirs," says Mead.

022416 Reservoirs SNOWMELT Capture.jpg

 

She says the snowpack "that counts" is at 6,000 feet and above.

"The key is keeping that snowpack at higher elevations in the 90 percent or greater snow water equivalent so we have what we need for spring and summer runoff," Mead says.  

But she adds that even a snowpack near normal will not be enough to overcome the past four years of drought.

Last year, below-normal precipitation and warm temperatures over the winter combined to create a historically-meager Sierra snowpack. 

California drought managers have said the snowpack’s water content will have to be much greater than normal to have a significant effect on the drought, now in its fifth consecutive year.