Fresno Bee Newsroom Blog

2012-2013 wet season might be among Fresno’s 10 driest

Rainfall in Fresno for January through April? It was a kidney stone of a four-month period. It ranks as the sixth-driest on record, according to the National Weather Service in Hanford.

It’s a relief that those four months have just about passed, but we have more than just a dry spell here. If there’s little or no rainfall between now and the end of June, this will go down as one of the 10 driest years on record for Fresno.

Those records date back to 1878.

I’ve talked with a few meteorologists who say California is in a drought, though the state has not declared one.

Paul Iniguez of the National Weather Service says: “As a meteorologist, I will say that large areas of the state are experiencing meteorological drought.”

 The state had a dry year in 2011-2012. It looks like 2012-2013 — water year runs from July 1 through June 20 — will be even drier.

Fresno is a good example. It had 8.15 inches of rain last year, about 75% of average. This year, the city has 5.60 inches, about 52% of average for late April.

The snowpack was a bit of a disaster as well. It was 48% of average on April 1. The year before, it was 54% of average.

With reservoirs still close to average — with the notable exception of San Luis Reservoir in western Merced County — the impact of consecutive dry years could be much worse.

But water managers throughout California already are worrying about next winter.

Snow surveys in Kings River area confirm small snowpack

The Kings River Water Association on Thursday said the snowpack is half or less than what it would normally be in higher elevations above Pine Flat Reservoir.

Two lower elevation courses had little or no snow, the association reported. Association leaders say this could turn out to be one of the driest years on record at the Kings River.

Kings River Watermaster Steve Haugen said the result was not a surprise. There has been little storm activity since December. Now farmers involved with the 1 million-acre association face a second dry year in a row.

“Our member units and their water users are going to have below-average water supplies again this year,” he said.

More groundwater pumping is expected this summer, Haugen said.

If the dry spell continues, the river runoff is expected to be as low as 32% of average, or about 400,000 acre-feet of water.

Bee photographer was part of snow-surveying crew

Fresno Bee photographer Mark Crosse — yes, his name is very similar to mine — took the stunning photographs in the high Sierra for my story about the snowpack today. But he came back talking about more than just the gorgeous scenery.

Mark Crosse’s photo of Blackcap Basin, taken from PG&E’s helicopter on Tuesday.

Snowpack photo assignments usually involve a quick helicopter ride to one mountain meadow where you take a picture of hydrographers. Not this time.

Crosse wound up as part of the crew, writing down the record of snow measurement at each of the five stops that Pacific Gas & Electric Co. made Tuesday in the Sierra. In these times of economic strain, PG&E has streamlined its operation, so everybody gets involved.

The photographer said he really didn’t know what to expect. He found that PG&E hydrographer Christine Bohrman and pilot Brett Hendricks were amiable companions and keeping records was not difficult.

“It was a fantastic day flying in a helicopter, seeing the Sierra up close and just being part of it,” he said. “My name is in the register as the record keeper for those places.”

The places included wind-swept Blackcap Basin above 10,000 feet in the Kings River watershed. These high Sierra basins are amazing to see in summer, but Crosse had the opportunity to photograph one from a helicopter in March with snow everywhere.

That stop simply was not usually part of the itinerary in past years.

Crosse and I have backpacked for  stories at The Bee over the last 18 years — Mount Whitney, Half Dome, lengthy sections of the John Muir Trail. He is no stranger to interesting outdoor photography. But he said this assignment stands out.

“This assignment is on my list as one of the best experiences I’ve had at The Bee,” he said.

Winter roars back, but maybe not for long

The Yosemite Conservancy’s startling web cam shot of Half Dome this morning told me winter had returned.

But the National Weather Service told me not to count on a wet February.

“I expect another extended dry (temperatures cool to near normal) pattern to set in for the next one to two weeks,” meteorologist Paul Iniguez in the NWS Hanford office.

He said his forecast is in line with the NOAA Climate Prediction Center, which says odds favor a drier than average spring. Iniguez said precipitation for California is below normal.

Ouch.

For those who follow this stuff, check out NOAA’s El Nino-La Nina discussion. El Nino is the warm water phenomenon in the Pacific Ocean, sometimes meaning California will be wet. La Nina, corresponding to cooler water, can mean drier, cooler winters here.

Unfortunately, the Pacific is neither Nino, nor Nina this year. It’s tougher to handicap the wet season when neither is present in the ocean.

Rangers post updates from Yosemite’s majestic high country

Wind-blown New Year’s in Yosemite high country.

On the Yosemite National Park web site, two rangers are writing updates about the rugged high-country winter in Yosemite National Park. It is fascinating if you enjoy reading about the outdoors.

The rangers are a married couple,  Laura and Rob Pilewski. They are wintering over at Tuolumne Meadows, and from their accounts of the experience, they love their jobs.

Here’s what they posted the day after New Year’s:

“Most of our week was spent on Tioga Pass. We saw a very ambitious set of coyote tracks that explored Gaylor Peak ridge all the way down to Tioga Lake though very deep snow. Weasel and pine marten tracks were seen between there and Tuolumne as well. The most notable sighting was a colorful flock of over 20 male (red) and female (yellow-green) red crossbills flying over Dana Meadow at sunset, peacefully ringing in the New Year as they passed overhead.”

For some people, that experience beats Times Square by quite a bit.

But the Sierra at 8,000 and 9,000 feet can be pretty unforgiving in December and January. The latest update says the low temperature two days after Christmas was minus 13.

The rangers stay in a cabin at Tuolumne Meadows, park officials said. They ski back to civilization occasionally for supplies, but mostly they are working — checking utilities, doing wildlife surveys, assisting with measuring the snowpack and watching the park’s buildings in the high country.

Track California reservoirs, rivers and snowpack data

If you’re interested in tracking reservoir storage, river flows and the snow-water content in the Sierra, the state has a web site for you — California Data Exchange Center, known as CDEC.

I am particularly interested in the amount of water frozen in the snow. Water content gives you an idea of how much water can be expected next spring and summer when the snowpack melts.

About this time of year, I like to compare the snowpack at this point to the snowpack last year. You can do that at this page.

As of Nov. 21, the Sierra is about the same as it was last year.  It is less than average, but most of the season is still ahead.

River flows become more important later in the wet season, but any time is a good time to look up reservoir levels. Reservoirs are the bank account of water from previous seasons. They’re still looking pretty good, even though last year was a little dry.

Follow CDEC, and you’ll have an idea of what farmers, hydroelectric projects and many industries are watching this winter in California.