Words: Julie Brown
Skiers in the Tahoe region were optimistic about this winter. After last season—when the big storms didn't come until March and everybody was skiing manmade groomers well into January—it seemed like winter had hit rock bottom. Any season would be better than last year's, right? But coming out of a three-month dry spell, Tahoe just hit a new low.
According to the National Weather Service, this past January, February, and March set a record in Tahoe City for being the driest first quarter in the last century. The precipitation Tahoe City usually receives in those same three months, based on a 30-year average from 1980 to 2010, is more than 16 inches. This year, only 2.68 inches of precipitation fell in Tahoe City. The previous record, set in 1976, saw almost an inch more of liquid.
And so it goes for the land of extremes. Tahoe went from having one of its deepest winters ever recorded in 2011 to seeing record-breaking dry spells.
"It's really like two bookends of extremes," says Mark McLaughlin, a Tahoe historian who is known as the "Storm King." "The weather that comes here, we get it big and hard and we get dry spells in between."
December set up the snowpack in Tahoe with storms for several straight weeks that brought the area almost double the normal precipitation. Going into 2013, Squaw Valley recorded a cumulative 250 inches of snowfall at its upper elevations. But as soon as the New Year passed, the faucet turned off. Fortunately, skiers had enough of a snowpack to last them through the season. While the south-facing aspects are completely burned out, a decent snowpack remains on the upper parts of the mountains.
According to the California Department of Water Resources, the April 1 snowpack for the Central Sierra Nevada is just above 50 percent of its average.
McLaughlin stopped short of dismissing this winter entirely, remembering that in 1880 more than 26 feet of snow fell in the month of April. Reason to be optimistic, anyway.