Sierra Storm Does Little To Ease Drought

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This week's winter storm gave a slight boost to the Sierra snowpack but did little to ease drought concerns, officials said.

"It's just not really cutting it," said Dan Greenlee, a hydrologist with the U.S. Natural Resources Conservation Service.

Greenlee and colleague Ed Blake strapped on snowshoes Tuesday to visit the last stop in their monthly snow survey, a journey that took them during the past week to about a dozen sites in the Lake Tahoe Basin and the drainages of the Truckee, Carson and Walker rivers.

Their conclusion: The central Sierra snowpack is above average - about 110 percent to 115 percent of normal for the date.

But after four dry winters and a January disappointing in its dryness, the remainder of the season needs to produce if drought conditions are to be reversed, Greenlee said.

"It's taken us three to four years to get to this situation we're at now," Greenlee said. "It would probably take a similar amount of time of above-average snowpack years to get out of it."

Monday's storm helped some. At the Mount Rose survey site, 10 inches of fresh snow fell, increasing the snowpack there from 97 percent of normal to 101 percent, or to about 7.75 feet.

Nothing suggests storms bearing substantial snow are on the way. Although forecasters said a weather system approaching Friday bears watching, "there's nothing major" on the horizon, said Gary Barbato of the National Weather Service office in Reno.

Absent any storms, the snowpack drops 1 percent to 2 percent a day, experts said.

Long-term forecasts issued by the weather service Tuesday call for below-average precipitation through Feb. 17.

But long-term forecasts often are unreliable, said Jim Ashby of the Western Regional Climate Center at Reno's Desert Research Institute.

"That's the problem with these long-term forecasts - they really don't know," Ashby said. "It's kind of hit or miss."

So maybe February will produce like it did in 1986, when snow and rain combined to leave 4 1/2 feet of precipitation in Tahoe City. Or if February is a bust, maybe there will be a repeat of the "Miracle March" of 1991, when Tahoe City saw more than 6 feet of precipitation. In 1995, more than 8 feet fell there in March.

Last year, January, February and March were all dry. Then came "Awesome April" with its 10 feet of snow recorded at Donner Summit.

It wasn't enough to keep 2003 from going down in the books as a dry one, but it helped.

"Maybe things will get kicked back into a storm mode," Ashby said. "Anything can happen."