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Snowpack jumps 30 percent after massive weekend storm

Statewide, Nevada’s snowpack is at median levels or above for this time of year after March kicked off with heavy precipitation.
Amy Alonzo
Amy Alonzo

A massive early March storm has all but restored the snowpack across Nevada to median levels after what started as an abysmally low snow year in many locations.

The multiday storm that shuttered highways, delayed openings of schools and government buildings and prompted forecasters to issue blizzard warnings dropped 30 percent of the season’s snowfall in the Sierra Nevada while boosting the snowpack in other portions of the state.

The Reno-Tahoe International Airport received 10.6 inches of snow in the storm, while Mount Rose Ski Tahoe reported 84-96 inches. The Ruby Mountains received between 10 and 11 inches and Lee Canyon in the Spring Mountains received 6 inches of new snow. 

“We are back to normal for this date,” said Jeff Anderson, Nevada hydrologist and water supply specialist for the Natural Resources Conservation Service Snow Survey program. “The storm did what it was supposed to do. It dropped a ton of liquid, and it came as snow.”

In January, the Sierra Nevada, the primary water source for the Reno-Carson area, and the Spring Mountains outside Las Vegas were experiencing a meteorological drought coupled with a snow drought, especially at lower elevations.

The Carson River Basin started the calendar year at 38 percent of its median snowpack, the Lake Tahoe Basin started at 42 percent and the Spring Mountains measured just 9 percent of its median.

Following a snowy February and the huge early March storm, Southern Nevada’s Spring Mountains have received almost 200 percent of the amount of snow they usually receive through this time of year. The Owyhee Basin in northeastern Nevada is at 166 percent of median, and every other basin in the state is also more than 100 percent for this time of year.

But, at least in western Nevada, one more major storm is needed to round out the snow year, he said.

Hydrologists measure current snow levels against the median snowpack not only for this time of year, but also against what the median snowpack is for April 1. The start of April is midway through the water year, which is measured from Oct. 1 to Sept. 30, and is generally considered the end of the snow year.

The Truckee and Walker River basins are at 95 percent of median snowpack for the snow year, while the Carson River Basin is sitting squarely at 100 percent of median. Eastern Nevada basins such as the Snake River and Owyhee River are anywhere between 125 and 137 percent of median. And Southern Nevada’s Spring Mountains are at 114 percent of median.

In January, forecasters predicted there was only a 20 percent chance the Sierra Nevada would receive enough snow to reach the median snowpack by April 1 and a 50 percent chance in the Humboldt Basin in Northern Nevada.

Those odds have greatly increased, Anderson said.

“This storm really bumped up what was a mediocre year to possibly an above-average year, and it’s great news coming on the heels of a big winter,” he said. “The state of Nevada is doing great for snowpack, and now that the Sierra has bumped up, it’s really a positive story for the whole state.”

Having a big storm roll in late in the winter keeps snow on all aspects of the mountains heading into spring, and how many days snow remains on the ground plays a big role in wildfire risk, Anderson said.

“Certainly, having a normal snowpack is a step in the right direction toward not having a smoky summer,” he said.

Typically, an El Niño event indicates an active fire season in Nevada, according to Kacey KC, state forester and firewarden.

"We are monitoring the situation," she said.

The National Weather Service’s Climate Prediction Center is forecasting the current El Niño conditions that favor wetter-than-normal precipitation for Southern Nevada will transition into La Niña conditions over the summer.

In Southern Nevada, La Niña episodes tend to have normal to below normal precipitation during the summer. In Northern Nevada, the effects of La Niña and El Niño are harder to predict.


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