Sierra snowpack falls short

Fresno BeeMarch 27, 2013 

Snow-surveying crews across the Sierra are seeing bad news up close this week. California has about half a snowpack.

Skiing, snowshoeing or riding helicopters, the crews are making their way to high-elevation meadows for the most important snow measurement of the year.

April 1 is the unofficial end of the snowfall season -- this year, following a miserably dry January, February and March. City officials, industry leaders and farmers will get a good idea of how much water to expect when the snow melts.

Reports won't be finished for a few days, but California already has reason to be disappointed. Big storms of November and December built the snowpack to 140% of average on Jan. 1. Now automated snow sensors show it is 54%.

The snowpack was only 46% of average at this point last March -- meaning the state had two bad years in a row. There's no state drought emergency because reservoirs still hold about an average amount of water.

MARK CROSSE/THE FRESNO BEE Sierra snowpack east of Courtright Reservoir on March 26, 2013 during PG&E snow survey by helicopter.

PG&E conducts snow survey

But the "d" word is filtering into conversations among weather experts.

"We're in a meteorological drought," said meteorologist Paul Iniguez of the National Weather Service in Hanford. "We had record-setting dry months for some places in California during January and February."

Fresno's low rainfall totals aren't setting records, but the city is only 54% of average with 5.19 inches so far. This month, Fresno has gotten about one-third of an inch of rain, well below the average of 1.71 inches.

The National Weather Service is forecasting a chance of rain in Fresno and the Valley this weekend, but it does not look like a powerful storm. That has been a familiar forecast over the last three months.

There is no easy explanation for the big change in the weather pattern since December. Neither El Niño nor La Niña influenced the weather this year. For whatever reason, storms have been blocked over the last three months.

The result has been dramatic. The Yosemite Valley headquarters in Yosemite National Park averages nearly 13 inches of precipitation for January and February combined. This year, the two-month total is 1.41 inches.

Long-time hydrographer Henry French with Pacific Gas & Electric Co. said the snow looks like it usually does in May and sometimes June.

"Sure looks like a half-precipitation year," he said.

The Sierra east of Fresno has been important to PG&E for many decades, providing 16% of the utility's hydroelectric portfolio. PG&E's statewide hydroelectric network stretches from Redding to Bakersfield.

The crown jewel of the network is the mammoth Helms project, buried 1,000 feet into the granite between Courtright and Wishon reservoirs in Fresno County. The 1,200-megawatt plant could light much of the San Joaquin Valley.

After big snowfall years, hydro projects run all summer. Smaller snowpacks mean shorter runs of hydroelectric production.

"When we get closer to summer, we'll have a better idea of how long the season will last," PG&E spokesperson Paul Moreno said.

Valley farm water leaders have a good idea of what to expect. The federal government last week made a deeper cut into an already reduced water supply for west-Valley farmers.

The cutbacks are due to the dry season and Northern California water pumping restrictions for protected fish.

Westlands Water District, located in west Fresno and Kings counties, will lose $350 million of revenue, leaders said. They added that the regional economy will lose more than $1 billion in economic activity.

Farmers all over the Valley are nervously watching the snow and rain totals. The irrigation season probably will start early because rainfall has been so sparse, many farmers say.

On her 600-acre citrus farm in Tulare County, Cathie Walker expects to be using a lot of well water this summer.

"It's going to be a rough year," she said. "We were born into a farming family. We know this is the way it goes sometimes."

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