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The Nevada Independent

Thanks to ‘Miracle March,’ Nevada’s snowpack again above normal

Despite an abysmal start to the snow year, a late winter rally boosted the snowpack in Nevada and surrounding areas.
Amy Alonzo
Amy Alonzo

An early spring storm over the Easter weekend helped push Nevada’s statewide snowpack levels to above normal for the second consecutive winter.

As of April 1, all Nevada’s major hydrologic basins from the Lake Tahoe Basin in the west to the Humboldt Basin in the east were at or well above median peak snow water amounts.

The last time Nevada saw statewide back-to-back above-normal years was in 2016 and 2017. For some Nevada basins, such as the Humboldt, it’s been more than four decades since there were back-to-back normal years.

Measuring the amount of snowpack on April 1 lets water and land managers forecast what the upcoming months hold for everything from spring runoff to summer grazing to fall wildfires.

The above-normal snowpack extends beyond the state line to the Eastern Sierra and Colorado River Basin, two other important drainage areas for Nevada.

Achieving a statewide “normal” snowpack was a long shot at the start of the year, when, save for northeastern Nevada, the state and surrounding areas were looking at exceptionally dry conditions. Much of the state started the calendar year with less than half its normal amount of snow.

But thanks to a “Miracle March,” including a blizzard in Northern Nevada, those numbers rebounded drastically by April 1, the date by which most areas have received their peak snowpack levels.

“It’s a dramatic comeback for sure,” said Jeff Anderson, Nevada hydrologist and water supply specialist for the Natural Resources Conservation Service Snow Survey program. 

Against the odds

Achieving a normal snowpack defied the odds.  

While a few river basins, such as the Owyhee and Upper Humboldt, started the year above median snowpack, most Tahoe-area basins started the year under 50 percent of median. The Spring Mountains started the year at just 9 percent of median snowpack.

By late January, forecasters were predicting only a 20 percent chance the Sierra Nevada would reach its median snowpack and a 30 percent chance for the Colorado River Basin.

But as of April 1, the Upper Colorado River Basin was at 105 percent of median — good news for downstream water users including those in the Las Vegas area. Lake Powell is up 2.45 million acre-feet more than last year, and Lake Mead is up about 2.26 million acre-feet over last year.

Snowpacks in the Tahoe, Truckee, Carson and Walker basins are between 102 and 113 percent. Over the last 44 years, only 13 have had a snowpack between 80 percent and 120 percent of normal in those basins.

It’s more likely to have an extremely low snowpack, as in 2015, or an extremely high snowpack, such as last year.

“To have a normal year is a little elusive,” Anderson said.

Air temperature controls how much water is in 1 inch of snow. One inch of rain in a warmer storm can produce 2 inches of sleet or up to 50 inches of snow in an extremely cold storm. 

Because of this variability in how much water is in snow, snow depth does not equate to the amount of water in snow. For example, on April 1, the 112 inches of snow at Mt. Rose contained 36.6 inches of water.

This year, Nevada’s basins have anywhere from 10 inches of snow water in the Spring Mountains to 28.4 inches of snow water in the Truckee Basin.

The strong snowpack also means that Lake Tahoe is expected to fill this year. Following substantial snow years, the lake can fill up to 6.1 feet above its natural rim to store water for managed river flows and times of drought. Going into the winter of 2023, the lake was about 6 inches below its natural rim — the last two winters have brought the lake up more than 6 feet.  

The last time Lake Tahoe filled was in 2019.

“There’s going to be a lot of water for recreation,” said United States District Court Water Master Chad Blanchard. Its filling also ensures at least three years of water for Truckee Meadows water users. 

Bathtub ring is seen at Lake Mead on Friday, Sept.16, 2022. (Jeff Scheid/Nevada Independent)

Fuel growth and wildfire danger

Across Nevada’s rangelands, some early green-up along low-elevation hillsides and valley floors has started, according to Patti Novak-Echenique, rangeland management specialist with the Bureau of Land Management, and there is good soil moisture throughout most of the state.

According to the National Interagency Fire Center’s Predictive Services, the Great Basin is generally free of drought, and no additional drought is expected to develop across the basin heading into the fire season.  

Forecasts predict an average growing season for most of the state.

But growth of fine fuel — annual, highly flammable grasses — is expected to be above average in Northern Nevada, and once those fuels dry out, above-normal fire potential is possible for Northern Nevada by late June or July. Northern Nevada is listed as one of the Western areas most likely to see above-normal wildfire potential by July. The North American monsoon — the seasonal atmospheric change that brings precipitation to the Southwest during the summer — looks to be delayed or weak this year, which could result in warmer and drier than normal conditions across the Great Basin, according to Predictive Services. This adds to the likelihood of significantly drier fuels and stronger chances of above-normal wildfire potential, particularly in lower-elevation, grassy areas.


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