The California Department of Water Resources conducted its second snowpack survey of the season Wednesday, after two significant storms swept through the area.
Chris Orrock, public information officer for the department, went with a team to Phillips Station near the intersection of Highway 50 and Sierra-at-Tahoe Road.
The snow depth measurement is double over what was documented just before the new year. Orrock said the department’s Chief Snow Surveyor Sean de Guzman reported the current snowpack as 63 inches deep, with 17 inches of snow water content.
“Snow water content” indicates how much snow may become a part of the region’s active watershed. That means there would be 17 inches of water left in that field if all the snow around Phillips Station melted, Orrock explained.
“Snow is made up of air and water,” Orrock said. “For our purposes, we want to know how much water is in that snow so we know how much water has the potential to run into streams and reservoirs used for residential, agricultural and environmental purposes.”
Orrock said his department records snowpack in three separate regions — the Northern Sierra, the Central Sierra and the Southern Sierra. Orrock said the Central Sierra, where Tahoe is, has had 74% of the average snowfall expected this time of year.
Liesl Hepburn, Squaw Valley Alpine Meadows public relations director, said the current base for Alphine Meadows is 115 inches, the deepest in Tahoe currently.
Hepburn said North Lake Tahoe received 196 inches of snow so far this season, the most in the Tahoe region. The annual average total is 400 inches.
Orrock said California is experiencing a dry year, which happens when storms formed over the Pacific Ocean are blocked by a high pressure system off the coast.
“All storms are forced to go around it, making landfall in Oregon or Washington,” Orrock explained. “If the high pressure system moves east or west it allows for landfall here.”
The Southern Sierra, close to Bakersfield, has received 59% of the average snowfall expected this year, Orrock said.
Orrock does not necessarily expect El Niño years to be more or less wet than La Niña years, and said regional climate trends have varied greatly in recent years.
“2019 was a wet year,” Orrock said, “and the fifth best snowpack on record in California.”
2017 is the wettest year on record in California. The historic drought, from 2011 to 2016, took place just a decade ago, Orrock added.
“That’s the longest and most intense drought we’ve had in history,” Orrock said.
Orrock said his department collects information on the snowpack in two different ways. The Department of Water Resources has 260 snow courses across the Sierra and the Lower Cascades near Shasta that it surveys manually each month. The department employs another 130 automated snow pillows, machines that relay snowpack data on a daily basis.
“Those are scattered around the Sierra range,” Orrock said.
Orrock said California has been measuring its snowpack at Phillips Station since 1939, making the snow data the oldest climate record in the state.
“Compare month to month, I could go to a February survey from 1964 and compare that to what we found today,” Orrock said.
Orrock said analysts use a tool called a “federal snow pole” to measure the snow pack.
“It was invented by a professor at the University of Nevada Reno in the ‘30s, and hasn’t changed since,” Orrock said.
Rebecca O’Neil is a staff writer with The Union, a sister publication of the Sierra Sun. She can be reached at email@example.com.