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Sierra snowpack looking good

January 4, 2013

Ticket sales at Mammoth Mountain Ski Area are rising with the snow line. MMSA officials said the near record month in December has enticed a healthy number of recreators to the mountain in early January. Photo by Peter Morning/courtesy MMSA

Just three days into the new year and state officials say a healthy-looking Sierra snowpack – with above-average stores of water west of Bishop – could mean an ample water supply for millions of Californians this spring and summer.
An abundant snow year in the Sierra generally translates to increased visitation at Mammoth Mountain, which, in turn, means increased traffic (and business transactions) along U.S. 395. A promising spring runoff for the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power might not be out of the question, either.
A Jan. 3 survey of the local snowpack found that the central Eastern Sierra near Inyo and Mono counties has an average of 15.5 feet of snow water equivalent at its 42 stations.
That number represents 50 percent of the annual, April 1 snowpack average, which LADWP Public Information Officer Chris Plakos said is generally the height of the snow season.
The current snowpack is 130 percent of average, meaning that there is 30 percent more snow in the backcountry now than on an average year.
Manual measurement, along with dozens of other electronic readings up and down the state’s largest mountain range, determined the amount of water in the early winter snowpack.
Inyo County Water Director Bob Harrington explained that the snow surveys deal with the water content of the snow rather than the snow depth, because officials are using the surveys to make early predictions about spring runoff.
This month’s readings indicate the water content in the Sierra snowpack is 146 percent of normal.
The commonly accepted baseline of April 1 snowpack will be used later this year when the LADWP releases its runoff forecast, which will, in turn, help dictate seasonal flows on the LORP and allotments for LADWP lessees.
“Things are looking pretty good. Last year, it was much worse, we were well below the normal year-to-date average,” Harrington said. “A good runoff year is good for everybody. In our relationship with DWP, it’s always more challenging to keep water up here for the lessees when DWP is pushing for more water down (in L.A.).”
Both Plakos and Harrington said a snowpack of 130 percent of average in January is encouraging, but doesn’t mean it will be a wet winter. Harrington said a dry February and March could mean a more or less dry backcountry by April 1.
For that reason, Plakos said that LADWP doesn’t start its backcountry snow surveys until Feb. 1. Prior to actual backcountry surveys, LADWP relies on “snow pillows,” remote monitoring devices that tell department officials how heavy the snowpack is in different regions.
Using its snow pillows, the LADWP has reported that the Mammoth Pass area has about 15 feet of snow and 22 inches of snow-water equivalent, about half of the precipitation that it sees between Dec. 1 and March 30 on an average year.
The strong showing of numbers for precipitation has meant more white stuff for Mammoth Mountain Ski Area, which suffered through a dry snow season last year.
On the mountain, surveyors are reporting a season total of 226 inches for the year. December alone saw 147 inches of snowfall, making it the second best December on record. MMSA also reported 60 inches of snow in November and 18 in October. According to MMSA, six feet of snow has fallen since Dec. 21.
Last season, the mountain saw a total of 263 inches of precipitation, with only two inches of snow for the entire month of December.
With snow on the slopes, MMSA has said that it logged record-breaking attendance this past week. “We’ve had a very solid holiday period, and it’s not over yet,” MMSA Communications Director Joani Lynch said. “We’re already ahead of where we were last year.”
Lynch said, as of Dec. 31, ticket sales on the mountain were up 4 percent. “When we have a lot of snow, ski visits are higher,” Lynch said. “I think we’re seeing really strong visitation this year.”
With an 11- to 12-foot base on the mountain Friday, local weather forecasts predicted a 30 percent chance of snow in Mammoth today, with a 40 percent chance of snow on Sunday.

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