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Environment, Energy and Transportation

Shasta-Trinity snow surveys show 80% snowpack amid prolonged drought

Erik Neumann
Mt. Shasta Avalanche Center forecasters Aaron Beverly and Ryan Lazzeri and National Weather Service forecaster Brett Lutz weigh snow samples in the Shasta-Trinity National Forest.

What does the current snowpack tell us about drought next summer? Weather forecasters around California are collecting information to answer that question during this season’s annual snow surveys.

Just west of Mount Shasta, in a snow-covered valley in the Shasta-Trinity National Forest, avalanche forecaster Aaron Beverly drives a blue, 10-foot aluminum tube into the snow.

“We’re gonna do our stab,” he says. “Hopefully when we pull this out the snow will stay in it.”

He swivels the perpendicular handle at the top of the pole through the snow and ice until it hits dirt.

Beverly is an avalanche forecaster with the Mt. Shasta Avalanche Center. He and a few other forecasters have skied several miles into the woods to take snow measurements. They’re taken in the same locations every year and are part of more than 250 surveys around California. The snow here in the Klamath Mountains provides critical water for the state.

Erik Neumann
A California Department of Water Resources snow survey course marker.

“This flows into the Sacramento, ultimately. And then it flows down into the San Joaquin Valley, Sacramento Valley, Central Valley. It gets pumped from the Delta over into the aqueduct system that goes even further south down to LA,” Beverly says.

These measurements and other automated readings will be fed into a database managed by the California Department of Water Resources. That information will be used by farmers, politicians and environmentalists. The resulting water levels will dictate the seasons of rafting companies, water access for fracking operations and critical habitat for migratory birds.

Beverly pulls the metal tube out of the snow. Carefully, with the cylinder of snow and ice still inside, he and another forecaster balance it horizontally on a hanging scale.

“Hold it up high enough,” he says. “You don’t want it touching the ground.”

Erik Neumann
Lutz, Beverly and Lazzeri recording snow measurements.

After they weigh it and do some calculations, the forecasters will be able to say how much water is contained in the snowpack.

This winter, December provided several big storms. But January and February have been dry.

“The drought from last year never ended. It hasn’t ended,” says Brett Lutz, the lead forecaster at the National Weather Service office in Medford. He’s also helping with the Klamath survey.

Based on the past few dry months, and a high-pressure weather system keeping out storms, Lutz says it’s unlikely that this region will reach normal precipitation levels this year. But the snowpack varies.

“In the Sierras, the probability is higher of getting to normal precipitation than it is across a good part of interior southwest Oregon,” Lutz says.

This area, referred to as the Northern Sierra-Trinity region, is currently at about 80% of normal snowpack for the season, according to the Department of Water Resources. But after several years of drought, there’s a water deficit.

“We’ve got to have surpluses in future months and water years in order to make up for the deficit,” Lutz says.

SkiTourShasta copy.jpg
Erik Neumann
National Weather Service forecaster Brett Lutz hikes through the woods with Mt. Shasta in the distance.

Today’s survey is just one data point out of hundreds that will be collected in California this season. The snowpack so far is decent, but the stakes are high for the rest of February, March and April.

The surveyors pack up their equipment, make their calculations, and put on their skis. There’s plenty of snow for the ride out. As for water next summer, there’s still reason to be concerned.