No Snow Means Lousy Skiing and Sparks Drought Talk in California

(Bloomberg) -- With snow failing to pile up in the Sierra Nevada, Californians are starting to think about the unthinkable again -- another round of drought to shrivel lakes, parch the landscape and roil power markets.

The mountain range hasn’t been this bare since the depths of the monster dry spell that was declared over only last year. “The snow numbers are abysmal,” said Brian Fuchs, a climatologist at the National Drought Mitigation Center.

Some ski resorts are struggling to keep trails open. So little water is rushing downstream to spin turbines that hydro-power generation has fallen by about one third on average this year, according to the data firm Genscape.

“It is time to start to be a little worried,” said Alan Haynes, the hydrologist in charge of the California Nevada River Forecast Center in Sacramento, an arm of the National Weather Service. But only a little -- for now.

Drought is a disaster that creeps towards its victim, and the progression of pain could take two or three years to fully bloom. Contrivances such as pipelines, irrigation and reservoirs may well hold the fort long enough for nature to come through with a major snow dump next winter.

Natural climate variability often rides to the rescue, Haynes said. After all, many snow gauges now recording precious little were registering jaw-dropping records just 12 months ago.

So there’s somewhat muted alarm over the recent statistics: The amount of bone-dry acreage in California grew from 12.6 percent on Jan. 2 to 45.7 percent on Feb. 13, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor in Lincoln, Nebraska.

No Snow Means Lousy Skiing and Sparks Drought Talk in California

The reservoirs are key in California, and at the moment they’re quite full. The state captures its water supply during winter; it’s a Mediterranean climate, so after early spring precipitation is rare. People draw on rainfall gathered in the lakes and those are supposed to be replenished by melting snowpack.

The no-snow culprit is La Nina, a cold spot in the Equatorial Pacific that has disrupted weather patterns, said Mike Anderson, the state climatologist in Sacramento. A high pressure system goaded by La Nina has been bouncing between Hawaii and the Great Basin, a patch of the U.S. West that takes in parts of a number of states including California, Nevada and Utah.

So as of Feb. 15, snowpack was running 83 percent below normal in the northern part of the Sierra Nevada range, 78 percent behind in the central area and 81 percent in the south, according to the Department of Water Resources.

“And the forecast is dry for the rest of February,” Haynes said.

Actually, that forecast goes for both high and lowlands all the way through the start of summer, according to the latest predictions from the U.S. Climate Prediction Center in College Park, Maryland.

In Southern California, the only significant rainfall, in early January, was deadly, triggering mudslides and debris flows in Santa Barbara and Ventura counties that claimed at least 20 lives.

The bountiful precipitation last winter that ended the long drought played a role, spurring growth in plants and brush that dried out over the summer and became fuel for wildfires late last year. Those scorched and denuded hillsides that became mudslide zones with a few heavy bursts of rain.

Looking ahead, Anderson, the state climatologist, said he isn’t ready to predict the worst, because California may sneak by on the strength of the reservoirs. “I think cautious is a good word for now.”

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