Frank Gehrke, right, chief of the California Cooperative Snow Surveys Program for the Department of Water Resources, plunges the survey tube into the snowpack as he conducts the third manual snow survey of the season at Phillips Station, Wednesday, March 1, 2017, near Echo Summit, Calif. The survey showed the snowpack at 179 percent of normal for this location at this time of year. The state’s electronic snow monitors say the Sierra Nevada snowpack is at 185 percent of normal. At left is Armando Quintero chairman of the California Water Commission. (AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli/File)

By Paul Rogers, Bay Area News Group
Posted: 03/29/17 – 5:54 PM PDT |

The biggest blizzards are over. But as state water officials head into the Sierra Nevada on Thursday for the annual April 1 snowpack reading — the most important of the year for planning summer water supplies — California still has a huge amount of snow covering its highest mountain peaks, an avalanche that has buried the state’s punishing drought.

On Tuesday, the statewide Sierra snowpack stood at 164 percent of its historic average, a massive accumulation of new water. It’s the largest snowpack since 2011, when it was 171 percent of normal on April 1.

“In some of the Southern Sierra elevations, it’s kind of amazing,” said Frank Gehrke, chief of the snow survey program for the state Department of Water Resources in Sacramento. “There’s 30 to 50 feet of snow in some areas.”

At the height of the drought two years ago, the April 1 snowpack was 5 percent of its historic average, exposing a vast range of rock and dirt that normally would be covered with deep snow.

What happened?

In January, atmospheric river storms barreled in from the Pacific Ocean, no longer blocked by the high-pressure “Ridiculously Resilient Ridge” that had diverted so many storms during the height of the drought. Pounded relentlessly, the Sierra received so much snow that Interstate 80 and Highway 50 were regularly closed under enormous drifts. On some days, even ski resorts had to close because chairlifts and parking lots were hopelessly buried, and the power was out. In one storm on Jan. 8, wind gusts reached 174 miles per hour on the peaks atop Alpine Meadows ski resort near Lake Tahoe.

“It’s been a crazy year,” said Michael Reitzell, president of the California Ski Industry Association.

Those storms tapered off, and warmer conditions have brought less snow in March. Even so, more snow is forecast for Thursday, and the size of this winter’s snow surplus has been exceeded only three times since 1970 — in 2011, 1995 and 1983.

Squaw Valley ski resort, which has received 54 feet of snow so far this year, plans to stay open until July 4. Further south, the town of Mammoth Lakes in Mono County called in the National Guard earlier this month to help it remove some of the 44 feet of snow that has piled up along its streets and businesses.

“During the drought most of the snow was gone by June,” said Roger Bales, director of the Sierra Nevada Research Institute at UC Merced. “I’m thinking that this year there will be snow well into July and August, particularly at higher elevations.”

Meanwhile, since October, Lake Tahoe, which is 22 miles long, has risen 5 feet.

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