Resorts, water officials happy to see snowfall

Posted by on Jan 13, 2011 in Government Relations

By Tom Knudson
Published: Tuesday, Jan. 11, 2011 – 11:58 pm

The storms keep coming, one after another.

After each one, Sierra Nevada residents dig out to discover one of the most majestic and impressive debuts by winter in recent memory.

“The snow is just wonderful,” said Elizabeth Carmel, a professional photographer and co-owner of the Carmel Gallery in Truckee. “To have all that we’ve had at this time of year, it’s definitely a winter to treasure.”

From Sequoia and Yosemite national parks to Lake Tahoe, the mountain range is draped in a shimmering blanket of snow up to 18 feet deep in some places. The bounty of moisture is expected to yield lush wildflower blooms, healthier forests and fuller-than-normal reservoirs this year.

“It’s been a heck of a good start for us,” said Walt Ward, assistant general manager for water operations at the Modesto Irrigation District, at Tuesday’s board meeting. “I hope we can maintain it.”

The Modesto and Turlock irrigation districts have been releasing water from Don Pedro Reservoir to meet flood control standards set by the Army Corps of Engineers — 801.9 feet.

Jason Carkeet, a TID utility analyst, said the district is monitoring the Sierra snowpack, but it’s too early to accurately determine how much water runoff the valley will receive this year.

On average, Carkeet said they see 1.95 million acre-feet of runoff from the Sierra Nevada for the entire year and estimates that there’s already enough snow to hit that mark. If the region receives an average amount of rainfall in the next six months, Carkeet said it’s possible there could be 2.8 million acre-feet of runoff.

“We’re going to be releasing a lot of water this year,” he said.

‘Epic conditions’

It’s only January and Dodge Ridge ski resort in Tuolumne County has received more than half the snow it receives in a normal year.

The area on average receives 300 inches to 500 inches of snow annually. This season, nearly 300 inches of snow has fallen, said the resort’s marketing manager Amber Jenquin.

She said Dodge hasn’t seen this much snow at this point of the year since 2003-04.

“It’s epic conditions up here,” Jenquin said. “The snow is staying, and it’s great. This will be insurance we’ll stay open until the spring.”

This winter’s stunning start is an unexpected gift that has drawn legions of skiers to the high country, rejuvenated small-town economies, and transformed the Sierra into a fairyland of snow and ice.

The Sierra, of course, is no stranger to snow. The range, in fact, is famous for the stuff. Over the years, some of the fiercest blizzards in North America have pummeled the range, including the early snowstorms in 1846 that doomed the Donner Party and the massive snowfall in 1952 that stopped a passenger train, the City of San Francisco, in its tracks near Donner Pass.

Lately, though, Sierra storms have lost some of their sting. Eight of the past 10 years have produced below-average precipitation, prompting fears of long-term drought and climate change, and sapping the spirits of skiers and small-town merchants.

Not this year. Winter arrived well ahead of schedule, starting with heavy rain a week before Halloween. By Thanksgiving, some ski areas had opened. In December, snowstorm after snowstorm pounded the range, so rough and tumble at times that highways and ski areas were forced to close.

Good water content

By New Year’s Eve, ski resorts were reporting the deepest snowpack in years.

Tuesday night, it snowed again across most of the Sierra.

The moisture in that snowpack is impressive, too. According to the Western Regional Climate Center in Reno, 24.1 inches of precipitation, measured as water content, fell across the Sierra from October through December — the sixth-wettest such period of the past century.

“It’s pretty respectable,” said Kelly Redmond, deputy director of the center. “For water managers, that is money in the bank.”

The MID’s Ward cautioned that dry months could lie ahead because of a strengthening of La Niña, a cooling of equatorial Pacific Ocean water that influences California weather.

Historically, some Sierra winters that started wet have ended dry. But others that began with a wallop turned into legends, including the train-trapping winter of 1951-52 and that of 1981-82, when a March avalanche claimed seven lives at Alpine Meadows.

“Sierra weather can really whipsaw back and forth,” said Dave Antonucci, author of a book about the 1960 Winter Olympics in Squaw Valley who has lived on the west shore of Lake Tahoe for decades. “You can have months that are extremely heavy and months that are bone-dry.”

For now, the only certainty is the fallen snow itself.

“It’s wonderful,” said Antonucci, who exercises almost every day on cross-country skis. “You’ve got to take advantage of it and be active outdoors and revel in it.”

Modesto Bee staff writer John Holland contributed to this report.
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