RENO-TAHOE — The snowpack on Sierra Nevada summits is “not doing great,” an official said last week, and what’s worse — coverage a little farther down the mountains is approaching historic lows.
That was the assessment on Dec. 28 when Jeff Anderson of the Nevada Natural Resource Conservation Service conducted the first snowpack survey of 2017-18 for the Sierra Nevada.
Under sunny skies and with temperatures approaching 50 degrees by late morning, Anderson and members of the media trudged down a groomed ski trail at Mt. Rose Ski Tahoe for a couple hundred of yards to the “SNOTEL” monitoring site, which showed the pack to be 84 percent of median at about 8,600 feet.
“It’s below normal, but not terrible,” said Anderson, while also mentioning it was about 120 percent at the same time last year.
The Truckee Basin is measuring at 59 percent, where it was 91 percent a year ago, and South Lake Tahoe, which is a separate basin for the NRCS, is at a lowly 30 percent. However, that measurement is recorded by a single weather station at Heavenly Mountain Resort at about 8,600 feet. At this time last year, it was at 67 percent.
“We’re not doing great right now, but if we can get back into the storm track, it can turn around pretty quickly,” Anderson said. “Last year we had such a huge winter and it didn’t take off until January. Our snowpack doubled last year in January.”
Below 8,000 feet, the SNOTEL numbers are among the lowest on record for the date. A series of warm storms in November that consistently started as rain around 9,000 feet contributed to the lack of coverage.
Mt. Rose, which has the highest base elevation of any resort in the Tahoe Basin, reportedly received 40 inches of snow during one November storm, and the cold temperatures have helped maintain that amount.
Ward Creek, at 6,655 feet on the West Shore of Lake Tahoe, is reading its lowest totals in its 39-year history of collecting data.
Tahoe City Cross (6,800 feet) on the North Shore is reading its second lowest total in 37 years. Rubicon #2 (7,600 feet) on the West Shore has its second lowest total in 38 years. Marlette Lake (7,880 feet) on the East Shore is at its fourth lowest measurements in 40 years and Central Snow Lab (6,900 feet) on Donner Summit is showing its fourth lowest total in 35 years.
“2016 was an average year, it wasn’t huge and it wasn’t dry,” said Anderson, who added that the region’s water supply depends on getting five to 10 strong atmospheric river-type storms each winter. “We were a little better off than we were the four years before that when we were in drought. Last year we had record precipitation at all of our weather stations.
“Two years before we received the highest amount on record, we had one of the lowest amounts on record.”
Some of the Dec. 28 numbers were expounded on during the first snow survey of 2018 on the California side of the Sierra Nevada, which took place Jan. 3 at Phillips Station, located at the base of the road leading to Sierra-at-Tahoe ski resort near Echo Summit.
California’s water managers measured as little as 3 percent of normal snowpack during the survey, taking place in a grassy meadow that was almost bare of snow, according to media reports.
Climate change increasingly is changing the mountain snowfall equation, but historically, up to 60 percent of Californians’ water supply each year starts out as snowfall in the Sierra, according to the Associated Press. That makes the state’s manual and electronic snowpack measurements in these mountains crucial gauges of how much water cities and farms will get in the year ahead.
So far this winter, one month into the state’s peak storm season, snowpack across the Sierra stood at a mere 24 percent of normal, as of Jan. 3.
Department of Water Resources director Grant Davis says state reservoirs still have good supplies from a rainy winter last year. As such, Davis notes the state still has ample time left for big snowstorms.
Tourism still strong
To that point from Davis, while the overall picture isn’t great, especially in the context of 2016-17 — which the California Department of Water Resources said was a record water year — officials with Tahoe’s resorts and tourism industry aren’t exactly panicking.
Sierra-at-Tahoe is familiar with the survey process and says the results can be indicative of the length of its season.
“While the current story may be generally negative regarding natural snow, it sheds light on our skilled mountain operations team as well as our north facing and tree-covered slopes that help us preserve snow,” said Thea Hardy, Sierra-at-Tahoe communications manager, in an interview between the Christmas and New Year’s holidays. “In a way, if they go down and stick that pole straight into the dirt, sure, it proves there are spots in Tahoe with no snow on the ground. However, we have the means and machinery to preserve the snow we do have on our open trails, which look great considering.”
The lack of snow has not stopped people from flocking to Lake Tahoe’s South Shore. Hotels have been busy, as have shopping centers, said Carol Chaplin, president and CEO of the Lake Tahoe Visitor’s Authority. Chaplin noted that she had trouble finding a place to park at Heavenly Village during Christmas weekend.
“It’s tough to say it will affect us this season,” Chaplin said. “We historically have dry periods. A lot of our holiday reservations were made in advance. We might lose the spur-of-the-moments if this extends into January, so that story may change. But we were very strong for the Christmas holiday and ... New Year’s.”
Heavenly Mountain Resort, which straddles the California and Nevada state line, is in good shape, according to Chaplin, because cold temperatures have helped them make plenty of snow and they continue to open more trails even without natural white stuff falling from the sky.
“All in all, I’d say we’re looking at good conditions,” Chaplin said. “I feel like we should be happy with what we have to offer.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.