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There's Snow in the Sierra, But Not Enough Yet

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Snow in Markleeville, California.  (Scot Hacker/Flickr)

It didn't take an official measurement for Californians to start celebrating the presence of snow in the Sierra.

But still, drought watchers have anxiously awaited California's version of Groundhog Day, the Sierra snow survey. Starting in December, the California Department of Water Resources sends a crew each month to a spot near Echo Summit, high above Lake Tahoe. The crew measures the snow, tells reporters, and reporters tell the rest of us.

This year the news is obviously better than last year, with the snowpack at 136 percent of average at Phillips Station. But statewide remote sensing shows the snowpack at 105 percent of normal for this date.

"Which is encouraging. But still obviously not where we'd like to be," said chief surveyor Frank Gehrke.

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"A good part of this snowpack is going to essentially soak into the ground before we see it as runoff," Gehrke said. "So we're encouraged, but we have four to five months before the final tale is told, in terms of whether or not we make significant progress on recovering from the drought."

More snow is good, because in the spring and summer the snow melts and runs down streams and rivers into the state's reservoirs. Some 30 percent of water for Californians comes just from the Sierra Nevada snowmelt.

Arthur Hinojosa, with the Department of Water Resources, says that in some ways, the snow is even more important than the rain.

"Because that snowpack is the best reservoir we have and if it’s sitting there full going into the summer," Hinojosa says, "then that’s a boon and we did not have that last year at all. We had our largest reservoir empty going into the summer. And that was a huge impact across the state."

But this date is early in the game. We need the snowpack to continue building through March, but as the full effect of the ocean’s strong El Niño conditions kicks in during January, storms could revert to the more familiar “Pineapple Express” -- warm tropical systems that tend to drop more rain than snow in the Sierra.

You can follow the snow online, where electronic sensors record every hour of every day during the winter season.

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