Big Snowfall Pads Sierra Snowpack, Water Outlook

A monster storm that pummeled the Sierra and northern Nevada for three days more than doubled the region's snowpack and greatly eased drought conditions - provided the weather tap doesn't run dry between now and late spring, experts said Monday.

"Right now we're good. Let's just hope it keeps on coming," said Gary Barbato, a hydrologist with the National Weather Service in Reno.

The storm that brought waves of heavy snow and rain was among the biggest in the past 50 years, the weather service said.

It dumped up to 11 feet of snow at some of the higher elevations in
the Sierra Nevada.

Whether it was enough to end drought conditions remains to be seen, but it certainly helps, said Kelly Redmond, a climatologist with the Western Regional Climate Center in Reno.

"This snow is money in the bank, basically," Redmond said. "I don't know if it's a (drought) buster, but it certainly helps quite a lot."

In the valleys of western Nevada, the Reno area received about 8 inches of snow, while farther south in Carson City, Gardnerville and other outlying foothill areas, totals easily topped a foot or more.

That didn't include heavy rains the fell before temperatures dropped.

Some of the rain totals were records in themselves, Redmond said.

Reno on Friday received 1.91 inches of rain, 25 percent of its annual average of 7.48 inches.

"In a typical year, the wettest day of the year brings about 13 percent of annual precipitation, less than an inch," Redmond said.

When the calendar changed to 2008, the water equivalent in the Truckee River Basin was 56 percent of normal, Barbato said.

As of Monday, it shot up to 96 percent.

In the Tahoe Basin, the snowpack jumped from 49 percent to 108 percent of normal.

The Carson River Basin soared from 48 percent to 113 percent of normal, while farther south, the Walker River Basin went from 42 percent to 106 percent.

"The snowpack more than doubled from that one series of storms," Barbato said.

But experts said storms - big ones or little ones - need to keep coming.

"Otherwise we're going to drop like a rock," and any gains of the past week will quickly be lost," Barbato said.

The immediate long-range forecast is iffy.

"We're kind of in the middle," he said, between predictions on whether the next three months will be wet or dry.

For Nevada and the Sierra, the wettest time of the year is usually mid-March.

"After that it usually peters out in a hurry," Barbato said.

But Redmond said in the past decade or so, springs storms haven't always materialized.

"We've had to coast, in effect, on early winter storms," he said. "It's not necessarily a given that the season will keep up."

The hefty snowpack and moisture levels are in sharp contrast to last year, when the winter was dry and the Sierra snowpack was dismal at best.

At the end of the last season, hydrologists said the snow depth along the 400-mile-long range was just 29 percent of normal, the lowest since 1988.

The National Drought Monitor rated drought conditions in most of Nevada as severe to extreme.

The snowpack is important for cities and farmers on both sides of the mountain range that straddles the Nevada-California line, providing water during the dry summer months for crops and municipalities.


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