With communities across the Sierra Nevada and Great Basin desperate for good news, half a miracle is better than no miracle at all.
In the second half of March the region’s snowpack totals rose from depressingly low to fairly decent, considering the circumstances, thanks to a series of late-season storms.
The storms boosted the amount of water in the Lake Tahoe and Truckee River basin snowpacks by about 6.5 inches in two weeks, which is about half of the “Miracle March” surges of 1991 and 2018.
Still, it was enough to improve the snowpack from a dismal 48 to 49 percent of normal at the beginning of the month to a not-so-bad 70 to 72 percent by April 1.
And while the COVID-19 virus pandemic kept many skiers and snowboarders from enjoying the powder up close, people across Northern Nevada will appreciate the moisture boost for months to come.
“The second half of the month was up to Miracle March standards,” said Jeff Anderson, a hydrologist for the Natural Resources Conservation Service. “It was half a miracle.”
The news wasn’t as good in California where on Wednesday the Department of Water Resources reported the snowpack was just 53 percent of normal.
Entering April, which is the typical moment for peak snowpack, the story in Nevada was a big improvement from a month earlier, aside from the Walker River Basin which didn’t benefit as much as other areas from March storms.
On March 1, following a drier-than-normal January and historically dry February, snowpack in the Lake Tahoe Basin was just 48 percent of normal.
The Truckee River Basin wasn’t much better at 49 percent. The Carson River Basin was at 56 percent and Walker River Basin was at 42 percent.
Interior northern Nevada was faring better, with 93 and 94 percent of normal in the Lower and Upper Humboldt basins and above 100 percent in the remote Owyhee and Snake river basins.
By April 1, the Tahoe, Truckee and Carson basins were 72, 70 and 76 percent, the Walker was at 54 percent and the Humboldt Basins remained at or above 90 percent.
“We definitely could have taken a much different trajectory if March had gotten warm,” Anderson said.
The late season boost likely won’t be enough to top off storage in Lake Tahoe and other reservoirs, but given how winter started it’s better than expected.
“It wasn’t stellar but it was a great turnaround from what we saw in February,” said Federal Water Master Chad Blanchard.
Projections from mid-March suggest the late season snow will raise Lake Tahoe a little more than six inches by adding about 72,000 acre feet of water, enough to supply as many as 140,000 homes for a year, to the lake.
And with more snow expected in the coming days, the number could increase slightly.
Blanchard said even though winter provided less water than usual for the system, the timing of the late season boost is particularly helpful.
That’s because snow that falls in March and April is more likely to make its way into Lake Tahoe than January snow.
“An inch of precipitation in April is a lot better than an inch of precipitation in January,” Blanchard said. “If it falls in April you are going to get most of it because it is melt time, runoff time.”
Benjamin Spillman covers the outdoors and environment in Northern Nevada, from backcountry skiing in the Sierra to the latest from Lake Tahoe’s ecosystem. Support his work by subscribing to RGJ.com right here.
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