Winter snows may have arrived in abundance in some parts of the country, but it's a different story so far in California, where the first snow survey of the season has already raised concerns for the coming summer. At Yosemite National Park, skiers have more immediate concerns, with the Badger Pass Ski Area not yet open for the season.
The importance of adequate snowfall in High Sierra areas such as Yosemite is summed up by the state's Department of Water Resources (DWR): "The snowpack normally provides about a third of the water we use in California as it slowly melts into streams and reservoirs in spring and early summer."
"More Bare Ground Than Snow"
That statistic alone explains why results of the year's first snow survey are prompting early worries in the state. Earlier this week the DWR reported that its "first snow survey of the winter found more bare ground than snow."
According to an agency spokesperson, "Manual and electronic readings record the snowpack's statewide water content at about 20 percent of average for this time of year." Figures are lowest in the northern mountains, which are at 11 percent of normal for the date. The last time California's statewide snowpack was this dry was in 2012, when it also was 20 percent of the historical average.
A Dry Trend, Winter and Summer
The readings today and in 2012 are also the driest on record, says the DWR, and concerns are compounded by last year's sparse rainfall; many areas of California ended calendar year 2013 with the lowest rainfall amounts on record.
Officials in the state are already planning ahead, in case the trend continues.
'While we hope conditions improve, we are fully mobilized to streamline water transfers and take every action possible to ease the effects of dry weather on farms, homes and businesses as we face a possible third consecutive dry year,' said DWR Director Mark Cowin. 'And every Californian can help by making water conservation a daily habit.'
That combination of low winter snow and skimpy rainfall at lower elevations during three consecutive years also raises worries about wildfires in a state where major incidents such as the Rim Fire last fall are still fresh in the minds of many locals. A recent report prepared for the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission says the cost of that one fire to local economies could be over $700 million.
Yosemite's Snow Courses Offer Valuable Historical Data
Measurements of the annual snowpack come from a combination of electronic sensors and old-fashioned hand measurements taken at specific spots in the mountains, known as snow courses. Data from Yosemite is especially valuable because it allows annual comparisons over a long period of time; records from some of Yosemite's snow courses date back to 1930.
While the year's state-wide water worries overshadow recreational issues, fans of the Badger Pass Ski Area are also feeling the pinch'the area has not yet opened for the season. The on-line "Badger Pass Ski Conditions and Snow Report" sums up the problem: "CLOSED UNTIL THERE'S MORE SNOW." Officials for the ski area are putting the best possible face on the situation, noting on the website, "We're just one good snow storm from opening for the 2013/14 Ski Season."
Still Plenty of Winter Ahead
There's certainly reason for that optimism, since there's still a lot of winter ahead, and it's true that one or two major storms can make a big difference in the situation. Ted Thomas is a spokesperson for the DWR, and he notes that half of the years with similarly dry first quarters caught up to average by the end of the season.
At present, however, the Yosemite webcams showing views of areas such as Yosemite Falls, Half Dome, the High Sierra and Badger Pass display very little of the eagerly-anticipated winter's snow.
There's certainly plenty to see and do in Yosemite, with or without snow, but If you're headed to the park in coming days in hopes of enjoying some snowshoeing and skiing, it would be a good idea to have a "Plan B."