RENO, Nev. — Consecutive dry winters in the Sierra are setting the stage for another summer drought across much of western and northern Nevada.
Significant snowfall in January turned into some of the driest weather on record during the last two months, leaving the mountain snowpack at about half of normal when the traditional season ended Monday.
Dan Greenlee, a snow surveyor for the U.S. Natural Resources Conservation Service, told the Reno Gazette-Journal (http://tinyurl.com/bpoc8rc ) that April 1 typically is the peak of the winter snowpack, so it's "a pretty sad ending."
Sierra snowpack rated between 50 percent and 70 percent of normal across the region. Lake Tahoe's basin was a "pretty dismal 52 percent of average," Greenlee said.
He said some of the poorest readings were on Tahoe's northwest shore at Truckee and Tahoe City, Calif., where the latest three-month period was the worst in more than a century.
Greenlee conducted his final snow survey for the year on Monday, at Mount Rose-Ski Tahoe between Reno and Lake Tahoe. That was one of the area's better spots with 6 feet of snow and 30 inches of water content — about 83 percent of average for the date.
Overall, it's a big letdown after December produced a snowpack at nearly 200 percent of average in places.
"We were up here three months ago talking about what a great year it was, how wonderful it was, what a spectacular start to the year it was, and it's just been downhill since," Greenlee said. "It's just been a pretty bleak year."
Runoff from melting snow this spring and early summer is expected to be less than half of normal on the Truckee River and in the Lake Tahoe Basin, Greenlee said. That means Nevada ranchers who struggled through an exceedingly dry summer of 2012 are poised for a repeat performance.
Doug Busselman, executive vice president for the Nevada Farm Bureau, said some projections estimate that Fallon-area ranchers and growers about 60 miles east of Reno might expect about 70 percent of normal water supplies.
"It doesn't look real good right now," Busselman said, adding that he's hopeful for rain to grow grass for livestock grazing. "I don't know how many more of these kind of winters and summers we can stand."
Upstream storage at Lake Tahoe and the Truckee River's other reservoirs is sufficient to maintain adequate river flows through the summer and normal water service for the 330,000 residents of Reno-Sparks served by the area's largest water provider, the Truckee Meadows Water Authority.
"It should be business as usual," said Bill Hauck, the utility's water supply coordinator. "We will once again be able to meet the needs of our residents."
The utility has adequate backup storage to weather a nine-year drought, Hauck said. He said a third dry winter could thus become much more problematic for the Reno-Sparks area in summer 2014.
"We're not going to end this year on a great note, so we will sure be hoping for a big winter next time around," Hauck said. "We're sure going to be rolling the dice next year."