Western Environmental
Testing Laboratory
El Niño 2015

No one living on the West coast has been able to escape the boisterous predictions about El Niño and its potential impact this winter.  At WETLAB, we have been keeping a close eye on what the experts are saying about the storm, and keeping our fingers crossed that it means lots of new snow.  However, there are new predictions out saying that El Niño may bring a lot of moisture, but it might be warm.  This spells bad news for our drought-stricken region, where it was recently found that the snow pack in the Sierra Nevada’s is at a 500-year low.  Of course, some moisture is better than none, but rain brings a higher possibility of mudslides and erosion.  Sadly, there is no way to know what’s going to happen until it happens, so now we must all wait with baited breath and crossed fingers, hoping for snow.

Predicted El Niño weather pattern, courtesy of Accuweather.com

Predicted El Niño weather pattern, courtesy of Accuweather.com

The Sierra’s first snow survey, conducted early this month, indicated what we already knew – it’s the beginning of another dry year.

 According to a recently published article in the Sacramento Bee, California experienced one of the driest starts to winter ever recorded. In fact, in its first snow survey, the California Department of Water Resources found the snowpack at only 20 percent of average – a water supply crucial to both California and Nevada.

In the northern Sierra, according to the Bee, which supplies much of the Reno-Sparks’ area water via the Truckee River, the snowpack is just 10 percent of average.

That stacks up to 9.3 inches of snow depth – 2.3 inches of water content – at Echo Summit near South Lake Tahoe, according to an article in the Sierra Sun.

The results weren’t surprising after 2013’s record-setting drought, the driest in California’s 119 years of data, according to the Western Regional Climate Center in Reno.

“The water situation is bad; we’re kind of in unprecedented conditions. We’re looking at a year that’s potentially going to be worse than the 1976-77 drought,” John Woodling, executive director of the Sacramento Regional Water Authority, noted in the Sacramento Bee article.

Reports by the Reno Gazette-Journal indicate that if the weather keeps up, California will only be able to deliver 5 percent of the water requested by 29 public agencies this year.

“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 Mark Cowin, director of the Department of Water Resources in an issued statement.

At Lake Tahoe, officials are already urging conservation, according to the Sierra Sun.

“Every gallon a customer conserves will help preserve the necessary water resources available during a drought situation,” Tony Laliotis, director of utilities for the Tahoe City Public Utility District told the Sun. “Conserving water in the winter is just as important as conserving in the summer.”

The season isn’t over yet though, as some officials have pointed out.

“One giant storm can turn it around,” said Steven Poncelet of the Truckee Donner Public Utility District in the Sierra Sun article.


Earlier this winter, we took a look at a promising beginning to the winter’s snowpack and corresponding water storage after big December storms.

Our January WETLAB blog reported end-of-December totals of 112 percent water content in the Sierra Snowpack that feeds the Truckee River and the Reno-Northern Nevada area downstream. At the time, that put us at 53 percent of the year’s total.

Fast forward to the end of February, and the picture is a little different – because the water is about the same. Yes, the months of January and February were the driest ever recorded for the Northern Sierra since modern records were first kept in 1920, according to the San Jose Mercury News, putting us at only 66 percent of normal to date.

Snowfall, stored in the Sierra to melt throughout the spring and summer as one of the major water sources for both Nevada and California, has been blocked by a ridge of high pressure off the West Coast for the last two months, driving storms up into Canada, and dropping them into the Midwest.

And accordingly, water officials are tightening their belts. The Walker River Irrigation District said farmers might receive about half of what they received last year, even though last year was also a below average year for water in the Sierra snowpack, according to the Reno Gazette Journal.

That – despite this year’s snowpack holding more water than last year – is due to drawn-down reservoir levels, according to Federal Watermaster Jim Shaw.

“I hate to bear crappy news, but being an old farmer, it doesn’t look very good,” Shaw said in the RGJ article. “If it’s any consolation, it’s this way clear across the U.S., from the Mississippi River west.”

While the April 1 deadline for measuring Sierra snowpack and water stored therein is quickly approaching, some local forecasters aren’t quite ready to write this winter off.

Snow Forecaster Bryan Allegretto of opensnow.com writes that, depending on which forecasting model you look at, there’s still a chance at feet of snow before the month of March is up.

The bottom line – if you’re an optimist, it’s not over until its over, but if you’re not, we’re unlikely to make up for the ground lost in January and February.

Sierra Snowpack water content off to a strong start!

Measuring snow depth with GPS

Measuring snow depth with GPS (Photo credit: WSDOT)

It’s that time of year again – the time when intrepid snow surveyors head out into the Sierra Nevada Mountains to assess how much water is stored in the winter’s snowpack.

California Department of Water Resources surveyors went out for the first look at the end of December and confirmed what we all expected – there’s a lot of water already stored in the snow, ready to flow downstream to Nevada and California in the spring.

The Central Sierra region, which includes the Truckee River – the primary water source for the Reno-Sparks region, holds 112 percent of normal water content for this date, and 53 percent of the yearly total measured April 1st each year.

The Northern Sierra reports 117 percent and 56 percent for those two stats, and the Southern Sierra shows 109 percent and 47 percent, according to the California Department of Water Resources.

After last winter’s dry spell, some in Nevada are still cautious, however.

According to a Reno Gazette Journal article, Federal Watermaster Jim Shaw told the Walker River Irrigation District Board to be cautious, with some long term forecasts showing below normal precipitation for January through March.

Frank Gehrke, chief snow surveyor for the California Department of Water Resources, shared the same caution in a San Francisco Chronicle article.

“We’ve got a real good start to the year, but still three months to go where we need to have more snow,” he said in the article. “From a skier’s standpoint, it’s gorgeous. You can’t get much better in California than we’ve got now. The thing that is always on our minds, though, is whether this sunny weather will keep up for long.”

Still, things look a lot better than last year, according to the article, with 4 feet of snow measured by Gehrke (1 foot of water content) this year, compared to 4 inches of snow – 0.14 inches of water – for the same time last year.

So the bottom line is this – we’re off to a good start, but let’s keep our fingers crossed for more snow to come!

Measuring snow depth with style

Measuring snow depth with style (Photo credit: WSDOT)

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Winter Forecasting from WETLAB – Western Environmental Testing Laboratory

OSTM/Jason-2's predecessor TOPEX/Poseidon caug...

OSTM/Jason-2’s predecessor TOPEX/Poseidon caught the largest El Niño in a century seen in this image from Dec. 1, 1997. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This time of year, many skiers, snowboarders and other snow-lovers in Northern Nevada and elsewhere start to wonder what kind of winter is coming.

But the winter’s snowfall affects more than just the ski slopes – it’s what supplies water to much of Nevada, California and the rest of the west. Here in the Reno area, the forecasts that get the most attention is what will happen up the hill in the Lake Tahoe Region.

There are a variety of long-term forecasts to choose from, and all have varying levels of success.

Accuweather.com first predicted big snowfall in the Sierra, but in their October 14 forecast, they’ve backed off, not predicting above or below average snowfall for the region.

“Rain and (mountain) snow in California this coming season, I believe, will be near normal for the most part. A little bit more in the southern half than the northern half is expected,” said AcccuWeather Long-Range Forecaster Paul Pastelok.

The long-standing Farmer’s Almanac calls for milder than normal temperatures than normal, with average precipitation.

Early indications showed the possibility of El Nino conditions, created by warmer temperatures in the Pacific that historically have meant more precipitation in the Southwest and less in the Northwest, but according to a local forecaster at tahoeweatherdiscussion.com, El Nino conditions continue to weaken.

It’s tough to tell what El Nino, or its opposite, La Nina, mean for the Reno-Tahoe area, as last year’s below average snowfall came with a weak La Nina, and the huge snowfall of the winter before came with a stronger La Nina.

On 14 of the last 60 winters have been neutral  – neither La Nina or El Nino – making predictions even more difficult, according to tahoeweatherdiscussion.com.

So the bottom line? There don’t seem to be any strong predictors yet. We’ll have to wait and see what the winter brings, and hope for the best to replenish our water supplies.

English: Snowy forest in Boreal, near Lake Tah...

English: Snowy forest in Boreal, near Lake Tahoe, in the Sierra Nevada of California. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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Finally SNOW!

Over a century ago, our region was characterized by booms and busts in gold and silver. Now it’s water – last year hit the motherload with snowfall in the Sierra for the record books. This year – so far – has been a bust, with the second driest December on record in the northern Sierra – the driest for Reno in 130 years.
While Wetlab’s work is water quality, as a part of the region we’re all watching water quantity too. Reno and Sparks depend on the snowfall in the Sierra slowly melting in the spring and coming down the Truckee River. So no snow has some people concerned.

The first snow survey by the California Department of Water Resources happened just after the first of the year in the Sierra.
The results weren’t surprising to anybody looking up at the bare mountains above Northern Nevada: 21 percent of normal water content for Jan. 3, and 8 percent of where we want to be by April 1, according to the Tahoe Daily Tribune.

The National Integrated Drought Information System rates much of Northern Nevada between “abnormally dry” and “Drought – moderate” and the Northern Sierra to the west in “Drought – Severe” as of January 10.

The good news, according to the Truckee Meadows Water Authority, is there is still plenty of water for its customers, according to a report on KOLO News.
“We know we can withstand at least a nine year drought,” Senior Hydrologist Bill Hauck said to KOLO.

Last year’s huge snowfall helped, leaving enough water stored in Lake Tahoe and area reservoirs for the community, he said.
The dry spell could still effect Northern Nevada residents in the costs of food as scarce water has affected agriculture, according to the report.
And  the dry weather put firefighters on high alert during a red flag warning on Sunday when the wind picked up, according to the National Weather Service.
The culprit has been a large high pressure front blocking storms and sending them both to the north and the south since around Thanksgiving.
But things  have started to change this week, with a the high pressure front being displaced north and a cold front moving into our region, according to the Weather Service.

“A short period of light to moderate rain should spill into the most populated areas by late Thursday afternoon,” according to the forecast discussion. “The strongest storm is still on track to affect the region Friday thru (sic) Saturday. Confidence is quite high for a period of heavy precipitation in eastern California and far western Nevada as subtropical moisture plume with 1.5 inches PW values points straight at the Sierra.”

Let’s hope the trend continues as the winter progresses, and the winter turns into another strong one!