Sierra East Slope experiences driest first quarter in 41 years

The East Fork of the Carson River flows under Muller Lane on Saturday as snow begins to melt off the Sierra Nevada.

The East Fork of the Carson River flows under Muller Lane on Saturday as snow begins to melt off the Sierra Nevada.

Irrigation season opened on April 1 after the driest first quarter measured in the last 41 years by snow telemetry maintained by the Natural Resource Conservation Service.

And things aren’t likely to improve as blocking high pressure continues to wall off Western Nevada from precipitation.

“We’re committed to a third year of drought barring some April megashowers,” Desert Research Institute Assistant Research Professor Benjamin Hatchett said early last week. “The key driver is a blocking ridge producing excessively sunny conditions.”

Warm, windy conditions are causing the snowpack to evaporate directly into the air.

The only saving grace for this spring’s irrigation season was December’s near record snowfall, that was preceded by the third wettest October in Minden where records have been kept since 1906. Since Jan. 1, Minden has only seen .38 inches of precipitation, where it typically gets 4.25 inches in the first three months of the year.

Warmer temperatures mean higher stream flows as the snow melts off about a month ahead of average. 

On Monday, the remote sites located in the Sierra indicated a third of the year’s snowpack has already melted as of April 3, according to the Conservation Service.

The Carson River Basin peaked at 70 percent on March 1, slightly lower than in 2021 and 2022.

“Spring runoff volumes are expected to be far below normal due to the low amount of snow remaining in the mountains and the lack of spring precipitation,” climate officials said on Monday. “With snow melting faster than normal, expect streams to peak early.”

The snowpack is the only significant water storage upstream from Carson Valley.

According to, the Carson River Basin is down to 49 percent of average for April 3.

Ebbetts Pass snow telemetry at the top of the East Fork of the Carson River is running at 44 percent while Carson Pass at the top of the West Fork is at 40 percent. While some snow telemetry sites are running a bit higher, like Blue Lakes 54 percent, they are also at lower elevations, which means the snow will melt off faster.

The Walker River Basin is at 62 percent, with Leavitt Lake reading 74 percent of average.

The big storms in October and December managed to bring Douglas County back from the extreme drought it was in at the beginning of the water year on Oct. 1. As of mid-January, the U.S. Drought Monitor indicated Douglas was in moderate drought, but the intervening months with very little precipitation has it heading back up to severe drought as of the end of March.

Residents of Carson Valley get their water from the aquifer, whose recharge depends on surface water, which is used by ranchers to irrigate their fields. However, when there is insufficient surface water, ranchers are allowed to pump supplemental groundwater rights. 

The University of Nevada, Reno, announced on Friday a National Science Foundation project based will bring together key players from around the state to address water issues.

“The project, Nevada Water, will develop a collaborative and inclusive partnership of water suppliers, users, policy-makers, and academics whose primary goal is to create a dynamic research, societal and education network focusing on critical urban-rural water issues across Nevada,” said Geology Professor Anne Nolin. Nolin, also director of the Graduate Program of Hydrological Sciences at the University, is leading the project, which has received a $149,923 grant.

The network Nolin and her team are building will include key public, private, tribal, research, nonprofit and educational water resource partners. 

“Our guiding principle is Science With Society, which emphasizes inclusion, communication, connections, and collaboration,” Nolin said. “The project stems from our response to an NSF call for network development around Sustainable Regional Systems, specifically focusing on urban-rural challenges.

“Nevada’s water issues are unusual in that our water supplies come from groundwater and mountains, both of which are being impacted by climate change and urban growth. We saw the need to develop a robust and inclusive water-focused network of key stakeholders across Nevada and our university and non-academic partners are well-positioned to co-lead this effort.”

This is a one-year planning grant that will fund developing the structure and goals for the Nevada Water network. The next step is to apply for a five-year, $15 million grant from the Sustainable Regional Systems Research Network. 

“Importantly, our network will not develop policy,” she said. “Rather, it is intended as a learning network where we co-identify diverse challenges, fill knowledge gaps, understand the social and hydrologic dimensions of water issues, and co-develop strategies for addressing seemingly intractable water issues.”


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