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Don't Count On El Niño For Sierra Snowpack

Ed Joyce / Capital Public Radio

There was still enough snow to ski on the upper slopes at Alpine Meadows in early April 2015, but not so much on the lower part of the area.

Ed Joyce / Capital Public Radio

Despite predictions for a strong El Niño to bring above-average rain to most of California, forecasters say it won't likely help where it's most needed. 

The NOAA Climate Prediction Center seasonal outlook does not forecast where or when snowstorms may arrive, nor does it project seasonal snowfall totals. Snow forecasts are determined by the strength and track of winter storms, which are not predictable more than a week in advance. 

But the outlook does say El Niño isn't expected to make a significant difference in bringing snow to one of areas hardest hit by the drought: the central and southern Sierra Nevada. 

"And this has greatly impacted agriculture in the southern and Central Valley in California, one of the major agricultural producing areas in the country," says Alan Haynes, a NOAA hydrologist, who works in the California-Nevada River Forecast Center.

What Haynes is referring to is the lack of runoff from melting snow in the Sierra Nevada, which was minimal after the snowpack hit a record low in April 2015. 

"These record low snowpacks combined with near record low seasonal precipitation translated into record low three-year runoff volumes for the Tulare and San Joaquin Basins, plus a record low one-year runoff for the Tulare Basin," says Haynes. 

He says the Sacramento Basin had its fourth lowest three-year runoff.  The snowpack is also key in filling California's major reservoirs.


1015 Season _drought


Haynes says a strong El Niño offers less certainty for a wetter-than-normal winter in Northern California. 


Donner Pass April 2015

Donner Pass April 2015.                          Ed Joyce / Capital Public Radio



The seasonal temperature outlook shows increased probability for above-average temperatures across much of the western U.S., including California, which would push the freezing level to higher elevations.
101515 Season Temp

The precipitation outlook shows increased chances for a wetter winter in southern California, but those odds decrease for central and northern California.
A strong El Niño typically brings warmer storms and less chance of snow to the Pacific Northwest, where drought is forecast to persist and intensify through January 2016.
101515 Season Precip