California's Sierra Snowpack Shows Improvement; Drought Still Not Over

Mar 31, 2016
Originally published on March 31, 2016 7:49 am
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This next story takes us high into California's Sierra Nevada mountains. On a high-altitude meadow, there is a snow measuring station. There, an expert prepared to do just what the station's name would suggest. The stakes were so high yesterday that reporters were on hand to watch him work. His assessment confirmed an amazing recovery of the mountain snowpack after years of drought, which is just what California needs - for a start. NPR's Kirk Siegler reports.

KIRK SIEGLER, BYLINE: In a western state like California, you can think of the mountain snowpack as the savings account. It melts gradually and fills reservoirs that sustain cities and farms through this region's increasingly hot and dry summers. That's why the snowpack measurements taken by California's chief snow surveyor, Frank Gehrke, are like the Bible for anyone in the business of forecasting or supplying water.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

FRANK GEHRKE: Seventy.

SIEGLER: His gloved hands clutching a long metal pole that punches through the snow, Gehrke measures about five feet or more throughout this snow course, as it's called. It seems like good news, right? But when he finishes up, he turns to a long bank of TV news cameras and microphones and says basically, meh (ph).

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

GEHRKE: It's better than we were. Let's put it that way.

SIEGLER: Last year on this same day, the snowpack in the Sierra was a paltry 5 percent of average, and today it's rebounded to about 95 percent.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

GEHRKE: This was a dry, dusty field last year. So a big improvement compared to last year, but not what we had hoped for.

SIEGLER: Well, the thing is this drought is so bad that California needs several more of these even just typical years to recover. And this winter, all the hopes were pinned to a record El Nino.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

GEHRKE: It's easy to fall into the trap of looking at kind of a familiar phenomenon and maybe putting too much weight on that. And it's clear we did that this year.

SIEGLER: While it appears to have bypassed the south, El Nino did bring considerable relief to Northern California. Now that's important because this is where the bulk of the state's water supply originates. Most reservoirs here are remarkably close to capacity now.

We traveled down the slopes of the Sierra, where the sugar pines and cedar trees give way to the oak-dotted, rolling hills. It's greener and lusher than it's been in years.

(SOUNDBITE OF SHEEP BLEATING)

SIEGLER: You're beaming.

DAN MACON: (Laughter) I am. I am. This is considerably more grass than we've had in the last couple of years.

SIEGLER: I've been checking in with rancher Dan Macon and his sheep throughout this drought.

MACON: This is absolutely the best grass for our sheep that there is. It's high in protein, high in energy.

SIEGLER: And they're all munching on it right now.

MACON: And they're all chewing away.

SIEGLER: The grass is so high right now it's even hiding some of the little lambs. Now these last few years of drought have been punishing on Macon's bottom line. He had to cut his herd by almost two-thirds. But he says it's also forced him to make changes. He's invested in more efficient irrigation. He's experimenting with drought-tolerant grasses.

MACON: I think drought's a reality going forward. It's nice to have a normal year, but I suspect that we'll have more dry years than what I think of as normal in the future.

SIEGLER: This is precisely the reason California officials sounded so guarded at yesterday's snow survey. They don't want people to slack off all from the progress that's been made with conservation.

And as you travel deeper into the Central Valley, where so much of the nation's fresh produce comes from, it's clear many in agriculture are just as worried about the future as they were before the snow returned this past winter.

GAYLE HOLMAN: You know, things are actually at the same or worse.

SIEGLER: In the farming hub of Fresno, Gayle Holman of the Westlands Water District says despite the improving snowpack, most growers need but don't expect to get any irrigation water from state and federal canals.

HOLMAN: And looking at a fourth year of a drought - whether you want to call it regulatory or weather-related, it's causing a huge amount of devastation here in this area.

SIEGLER: Holman expects her farmers will again fallow about a third of their fields. So while it's not as bad as it's been here, it's clear many Californians are bracing for drought as the new norm. Kirk Siegler, NPR News, South Lake Tahoe. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.