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Will it snow or not? With none forecast, be glad for December

February 4, 2011

The ghost of winter past? Let’s hope not. Mammoth Times Photo/Wendilyn Grasseschi

While much of the rest of the country got walloped by a massive winter storm this week, the Sierra remained stuck in a stubborn dry pattern that shows no signs of breaking anytime soon.

Even the groundhog in Punxsutawney didn’t see his shadow meaning, if groundhogs can be believed, that winter will end soon.

But the huge snows that hit the Sierra back in December were enough to, so far at least, protect the state of California, which gets 30 percent of its water from the Sierra Nevada mountains.

How do we know?

Every month from December through March, the state sends out backcountry skiers to check the snow depth and snow moisture in the Sierra snowpack.

The skiers come back with measurements from passes and basins across the Sierra and feed that information into data crunching computers.

The second of these snow surveys was completed last Friday and it paints a still hopeful, though by no means certain, picture for the coming year.

The epic December storms left behind enough snow to compensate for essentially none in January, leaving Mammoth Pass still above normal for the end of January.

The southern Sierra did even better. The wet winter storms that turned Southern California into a disaster area included huge dumps in the southern end of the Sierra, with as much as 307 percent of normal snowfall (in Independence) for this date.

The prognosis is good enough for the state to assure all its water users, from Imperial Valley farmers to managers of endangered salmon on the Sacramento Delta that at least 60 percent of the needs of the state’s users can be met by the water already stored in California reservoirs – unlike last year when only 50 percent of those needs could be met.

But we aren’t out of the woods, either.

“January was effectively a non-event. That is unfortunately the pattern of La Niña,” said Frank Gehrke, the state of California coordinator for snow surveys.

“The real issue is whether or not February will come through.”

With no major storms on the horizon, that possibility is getting a little uncomfortable, he said, although it’s still too soon to truly worry.

If the “non-event” of this past January had been any later in the year, say in February or March, the consequences could have been more serious.

That’s because the later in the year a dry spell occurs, the more direct the sun’s rays are on the existing snow pack.

“As we move into the spring, there is a lot more sun angle and increased snowmelt,” Gehrke said.

Runoff created by the warm days in January has already put many of the major reservoirs into flood control release mode, Gehrke said.

“Snow melting right now could mean we’re not going to have water come spring and summer when it’s most needed.”

The end result of both the big storms and the dry spell of the past month is that snowpack totals for the entire state are at 134 percent of normal and 78 percent of the April 1 seasonal average, meaning there is still reason for hope — and not enough surplus not to worry.

But, on the bright side, what does Punxustawney Phil know anyway?

We don’t even have groundhogs in Mammoth.

In Mammoth, it’s about something else altogether.

“Mammoth Marmot saw his shadow this morning,” said Howard Sheckter, Mammoth’s own weather forecaster. “He braved the cold, modified Arctic Air to do his job.

“Six more weeks of winter……Hope he’s right!”

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