When the chief of California’s snow measurements conducts his manual surveys, he usually does it in style, skimming the snow in cross-country skis as reporters plod behind him in snowshoes.
No need this time. The vast meadow around Phillips, a remote spot near Echo Summit, was mostly grass and dirt Wednesday, with pitifully small patches of snow. Frank Gehrke, the Department of Water Resources employee who runs the survey, wore simple winter boots as he walked the 200-yard course off Highway 50 to complete the first official snow survey of the season.
When the measurements were done, Gehrke reported the dismal numbers: just 1.3 inches of snow on average, and a “snow water content” of 0.4 inches. That was 3 percent of average for early January.
“While we would have liked to have had more snow at the first of the year, I believe more will come,” said DWR Director Grant Davis, who accompanied Gehrke on the snow survey.
The survey at Phillips, a former post office and stage coach stop at an elevation of 6,800 feet, is mainly a ceremonial affair, and Wednesday’s results weren’t typical of how the state is faring. Overall, the Sierra Nevada snowpack is about 24 percent of normal, based on electronic readings from “snow pillows” scattered throughout the mountains, and Davis and Gehrke expressed hope that the rest of the winter will bring better results.
“We’re very early in the season,” Gehrke said. “We have had very dramatic turnarounds.”
Davis added, “I’m not going to say the anxiety level is any higher than normal.”
Nonetheless, the statistics were a sobering reminder of the fickle nature of California winters. The state endured five years of epic drought, which ended with last winter’s record-setting precipitation. Now the season is off to a dry start.
Michelle Mead of the National Weather Service, who walked the meadow with Gehrke and Davis, pleaded with Californians to continue to conserve water.
A break in the weather was expected as early as Wednesday evening. The weather service’s forecast called for a mixture of rain and snow, extending through late Saturday. For Sacramento, the rainfall would be the first since Dec. 20.
But the upcoming storms aren’t expected to be “atmospheric rivers,” the deluges that can quickly turn a dry winter into a wet one. This week’s precipitation was expected to bring rain for the most part, with snowfall in most mountain areas hitting only 2 inches or so.
Although state officials welcome precipitation in any form, they prefer lots of snow because the Sierra can act as a second set of reservoirs, holding water until summer and fall.
In any event, Mead said this week’s precipitation was a sign that the high-pressure ridge hovering over the Pacific, which has effectively blocked most of the storms, is weakening. She said more precipitation is expected next week.
“Showers into next weekend,” she said. “That is a good sign for us.”