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A little too little, too late

April 3, 2014

This April 1 chart tells the winter's story in clear terms. Source/LADWP

Despite appearances in the aftermath of the last three snowstorms, the Eastern Sierra is still in its second driest winter on record after the last snow survey of the winter came in at a paltry 18.3 inches of water content, or roughly 18 feet of snow since the winter began.

That comes out to be about 42 percent of normal.

Only the winter of 1976-77 was drier, with about 10 inches of water content.

Most of the precipitation that has arrived has come in the past month; in fact, March has been about average in terms of snowfall. But those storms simply have not been able to catch up, following an almost snowless December and January, according to the state’s water resources department.

The April 1 snowpack survey of Mammoth Pass, done by the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, shows the situation in graphic detail.

There, in bold color, the red line for this winter slumps far below the dotted grey line showing the average snowpack for the date—42 inches.

High above that dotted grey line, the biggest winter on record—1982-83—towers over all at about 85 inches of water content.

April 1 marks the end of the winter, according to state and LADWP. That’s because the snowpack is considered to be at its peak on April 1, statistically. After that, even if storms bring fresh snow, the snowpack typically begins to decline faster than it accumulates snow, because of warming temperatures.

April 1 is also the day the state uses to determine water allocations to farmers, ranchers, wildlife and cities.

“We’re already seeing farmland fallowed and cities scrambling for water supplies,” said Mark Cowin, director of the California Department of Water Resources, in a statement Tuesday.

Electronic readings from the California Department of Water Resources found that the central parts of the Sierra Nevada have the most snow, with snowpack water content 38 percent of normal. This compares to 23 percent of average for the Northern Sierra and 31 percent of normal for the Southern Sierra.

It could be worse.

Before the recent storms, California’s average snow-water content was estimated to be at 25 percent of normal.

It is possible to move the numbers somewhat, should the next few months be unusually rainy and/or snowy in the Sierra and across the state, Cowin said.

But unless the deluge is of almost Biblical porportions, which would bring its own set of problems, there simply isn’t enough time to catch up.

“We can hope that conditions improve, but time is running out, and conservation is the only tool we have against nature’s whim,” he said.

The signs of the drought are everywhere, including the Eastern Sierra, where fire crews are already on duty months earlier than normal, according to local federal fire managers.

The same thing is occurring across the rest of the state. On Monday, March 28, Governor Jerry Brown, who ordered a state of emergency for the drought in January, said state fire crews moved to peak staffing levels in San Diego, Riverside and San Bernardino counties, as well as in Central California, the Bay Area region and the Sacramento foothills.

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