No surprise – snowpack at 139% of normal |

No surprise – snowpack at 139% of normal

Mother Nature is planting a big wet kiss on the Sierra Nevada mountains this winter, and state hydrologists and Nevada Irrigation District officials are loving it.

Poor snow a year ago aggravated the state’s electricity crisis by cutting the water available to hydroelectric plants that produce about a quarter of California’s power. Snowpack was half of normal last January, and the winter stayed dry.

By contrast, this year the snowpack is 139 percent of normal – the equivalent of 61 percent of an entire average winter, according to the state Department of Water Resources’ first snow survey of the year Thursday.

”If we were to have just average rain and snow the rest of the year, we’d be in good shape,” said department spokesman Jeff Cohen. ”There’s a lot of cushion there.”

NID didn’t take a snow survey. The water agency uses a helicopter to do snow surveys in February, March and April. But a few years ago, NID stopped taking snow surveys in January.

“So early in the year, it doesn’t really provide (enough) information for what they cost,” said Sue Sindt, NID operations supervisor.

But even without doing a snow survey, Sindt said, this year’s snowfall is “definitely a good start. I’m sure we’re well above January’s average.”

The mountain range’s snowpack provides two-thirds of California’s water for cities, farms and recreational uses.

It’s too soon to tell if the series of wet winter storms will continue, Cohen said, ”but we’re on track right now for an above average year. That’s for sure.”

Not only have the storms been consistent, he said, but they’ve been spaced far enough apart to allow water to soak in and run off without causing flooding.

The department took remote readings from 95 automated snowpack sensors, and conducted snow surveys along Highway 50 throughout the American River watershed.

The survey showed 165 percent of normal snowpack at a test site located at 7,600 feet above sea level; 172 percent of normal at 6,800 feet; 176 percent at a site at 6,700 feet; and 179 percent at a test site located at 7,100 feet.

Water projections aren’t yet in from the State Water Project, Cohen said, but are also expected to bring good news for the project’s urban and agricultural customers in a couple weeks.

The above-average snowfall is good news for state officials who had been worried enough about a possible drought that they started a drought-preparedness Web site and held a series of workshops this fall.

They also had begun contemplating starting a water purchasing program – buying water from those who have it and distributing it to those who need it – as the state did during the last drought.

That drought ran six years from 1987 to 1992, forcing half of the state’s counties to declare drought emergencies.

On the Net: Department of Water Resources

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