December storms ease drought, may not end it

El Nino may be coming through for the drought-stricken Sierra and the valleys of northern Nevada.

After a series of storms the last two weeks of 2002, long-term forecasts call for a chance of above-average precipitation in January, February and March.

But experts say the long term is too long to be declaring an end to three dry years.

"People are never very comfortable around here until the storage reservoirs are full," said Kelly Redmond of the Western Regional Climate Center in Reno. "Until we get enough snowpack, there's still going to be nervousness about the drought."

However, he adds that it's a great way to start the new year.

"We've had some pretty darned good storms," Redmond said. "It is helping. There's no question about that."

As of New Year's Day, Kirkwood was reporting an upper base of 12 feet and a total snowfall of 21 feet. The weekend storm left 21 new inches at Alpine Meadows and 15 inches at Tahoe City, Calif.

On Tuesday, the snowpack in the Truckee River Basin was measured at 158 percent of normal for the date; 159 percent of normal in the Lake Tahoe Basin; and 192 percent in the Carson River Basin. Some 1.89 inches of rain had fallen in Reno, more than an inch above normal.

Responsible for the wet and wild pattern was El Nino, a warming of the eastern Pacific that can drastically influence weather systems hitting the West Coast.

Redmond said it was unusual that December's El Nino-driven storms did not head farther south into Southern California. Instead, they barreled straight into Reno-Tahoe and north into Oregon.

"Its been a very active pattern and the brunt of the storms have been aimed pretty much at us," Redmond said.

Last year's optimistic beginning of winter was dashed when storms veered to the south -- more typical of El Nino events.

This December's snowfall was encouraging but the wet weather has to continue to pull the area out of drought, said Lori Williams, general manager of the Truckee Meadows Water Authority.

On Tuesday, Lake Tahoe's level was just above its natural rim, with virtually none of the 6 feet of storage the region depends upon for summer supplies. Williams told the Reno Gazette-Journal it would take a winter producing four times the normal snowpack to reach the lake's maximum. Just to keep flows of the Truckee River continuing at desired levels would require a winter producing a 200 percent snowpack.

"It's encouraging, but I look at the numbers today and its not enough," Williams said. "Let it keep coming. The more the better."


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