RENO, NV - There are 60 or so survey sites scattered throughout this portion of the Sierra. All are automated, but a dozen or so like the one on Slide Mountain above Reno are checked manually each month throughout the winter.
It may be the most accessible, but still requires a short hike in to the upper reaches of the Mount Rose Ski Resort.
It's a trip hydrologists from the Natural Resources Conservation Service makes every month throughout the winter, but the early April survey is the last and it's the most important.
The site lies just down the hill from a ski run. Barriers mark off the boundaries of what's called a pillow, a surface that's been measuring the snow pack here 24/7 all season long.
The manual check involves the old school method of measuring the snow pack: driving an aluminum tube into the snow and weighing the amount trapped in the tube. That weight is converted into water content and that's what this whole exercise is all about.
The manual test helps confirm what the automated sites have been telling us all along and those messages haven't been encouraging.
When we were here a month ago, the snow was about 4 feet deep here, about one third of average and everyone was hoping for a miracle March. We didn't get a miracle, but we did get a series of storms..
"We ended up with 150 to 160 percent of average for total precip in the month of March," says Dan Greenlee of the NRCS. "So, not a bad comeback, but tough to overcome that deficit."
This is the last time Greenlee will make this trip this year and one way or the other we'll all be affected by these final measurements. The April survey forms the basis for some important decisions and planning.
"We take those numbers and put them into various models and try to determine what we're going to see in as far as lake level, lake rise and river flows throughout the season," explains Deputy Chief Federal Watermaster Chad Blanchard, who has also made the trip to the mountain.
It will be a couple of days before all the numbers are crunched, but both Greenlee and Blanchard know what they will say and what it will mean.
"We're going to probably see between 40 to 50 percent of average runoff," says Greenlee.
As it turns out though we have backup. Last year's snowfall filled Sierra lakes and reservoirs.
"The storage in Tahoe is going to see us through this summer plus whatever we get off the natural snow melt," says Greenlee. "So, we're doing pretty good."
Greenlee says that means the Truckee Meadows Water Authority will get everything it needs in the months ahead.
"The agriculture community may be a little shy," he says, "especially if they're upstream from a reservoir with no storage going into the summer.