published Thursday, March 31st, 2011

California drought officially ends after snowy winter

By DON THOMPSON

Associated Press

SODA SPRINGS, Calif. — A drought that loomed over some of California’s most fertile farmland officially ended Wednesday after a winter of relentless mountain storms that piled snow up to three stories high and could keep some ski resorts open until the Fourth of July.

More than 61 feet of snow has fallen in the Sierra Nevada high country so far this season, second only to 1950-51, when 65 feet fell, according to records kept by the California Department of Transportation. And more snow is possible in April, raising the prospect of an all-time record.

When it melts, the snow will bring relief to hundreds of communities and many farms that provide fruits and vegetables to the nation.

Gov. Jerry Brown on Wednesday repealed a statewide drought declaration made in 2008 by then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who called for a state of emergency in February 2009 after three years of low water levels.

Brown acted after state officials reported the water content in the Sierra snowpack at 165 percent of normal for this time of year. That is one of the wettest winters since 1970, according to the state Department of Water Resources.

It trails only 1983, when the water content in the snowpack was 227 percent of normal, and 1995, which was 182 percent of the average for the end of March.

The wet winter means state and federal water agencies will be able to provide more water to urban and agricultural areas as the snowmelt fills reservoirs this summer.

The Sierra snowpack is crucial for California’s water supply. As it melts, it feeds a vast system of lakes and aqueducts that move water from the north through the agriculturally rich Central Valley and eventually to Southern California, where most of the state’s residents live.

Dry winters the past three years meant water managers could deliver only between 35 percent and 50 percent of the amount requested by cities and farms. That, combined with federally mandated pumping restrictions to protect a threatened fish, forced growers to leave thousands of acres unplanted and to lay off thousands of farmworkers.

Some cities imposed conservation measures that included restrictions on watering lawns.

Now the snow has piled as high as the power lines in some places and has been so deep throughout most of the 400-mile mountain range that it caused roofs to collapse. Some ski resorts had to close temporarily when they received more snow than they could handle.

Chris Rivest’s father sent him from San Francisco to the family vacation cabin near the Sierra Nevada crest with a seemingly simple chore — clear it and the driveway of snow.

When Rivest arrived earlier this week at the A-frame near Soda Springs, about 90 miles northeast of Sacramento, the snow was at least 10 feet high on the deck.

“My dad wants me to clear the deck,” the ponytailed 21-year-old said Monday, as he labored to clean up the driveway with a snow blower. “How do I even begin to do that? Where would I put the snow? This is absurd.”

Seasonal snow accumulation records already have been set at some ski resorts, including Squaw Valley USA near the north shore of Lake Tahoe, Heavenly Mountain Resort on the lake’s south side and Mammoth Mountain, the sprawling Eastern Sierra resort that attracts Southern California skiers and snowboarders.

At Squaw Valley, home of the 1960 Winter Olympics, ski patrol guides had to create tunnels just to reach their warming huts, and avalanches broke out windows at two lift stations, said Wes Schimmelpfenning, a 68-year-old patrolman who has worked there for 48 years.

Nearly 59 feet of snow has fallen there so far this winter, beating the old record by 29 inches.

Squaw is extending its season through Memorial Day, while Mammoth, with a peak elevation exceeding 11,000 feet, might remain open through Independence Day.

“I’m out plowing driveways, and we can’t even find the houses,” said Norm Sayler, who used to run Donner Ski Ranch along Interstate 80 and now operates a snow-plowing business near Donner Summit. “I’ve been up here since 1954, and personally this has been the toughest winter I’ve ever had here.”

Authorities are warning mountain homeowners to beware of failing roofs and vents and flues that have become blocked by snow.

The snow caused roofs to partially collapse last weekend at a bowling alley, a logging business and a hardware store in the Sierra foothills town of Pollock Pines, about 60 miles east of Sacramento.

“I better not hear Sacramento talking about drought for a while,” said Max Ramsey, 38, who on Monday was chipping snow and ice off the roof of a building that houses the Soda Springs General Store, post office and a vacation rental property business. “You get 60 feet of snow, it does a lot of damage.”

Building owner Tony Paduano said his wife heard “a large cracking noise” on Sunday as one of the roof’s support beams gave way.

The California winter started off intense late in 2010, dried out in January, then came roaring back with a series of heavy storms in February and March.

The storms dumped so much snow at the University of California Central Sierra Snow Lab near Soda Springs that the 15-foot-tall measuring stake was buried.

Researcher Randall Osterhuber had to extend the stake another 6 feet to keep up with the more than 18 feet of snow on the ground, the fourth-deepest total since record-keeping began there in 1946. More than 47 feet of snow has fallen there this season.

Old railroad records dating to 1879 put the deepest accumulation near Donner Summit at 66 feet in 1938. The most snow on the ground at any one time was 31 feet, in both 1880 and 1890.

Residents near Soda Springs said they had been without electricity or phone service intermittently over the past 10 days after storms toppled power and phone lines.

The snow rose above the third-story windows at the house 18-year-old Luis Rico is sharing with five other employees of the nearby Royal Gorge cross-country skiing resort, which closed all last week because of the storms.

The friends occupied their time by building a 15-foot-tall igloo with blocks of snow they cut with a chain saw. One morning, they woke up to find the doorway completely buried and had to tunnel their way out.

“We pretty much had to swim to get out of there,” he said.

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