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Why Snowpack Forecasts Are Important In California


In the western U.S., snow is piling up - a lot of snow. Governors in several states have declared states of emergency in counties hard hit by winter weather. Some areas are shattering monthly, even daily snowfall records. At a measuring station today in the Sierra Nevada, California water officials reported the snowpack is 153 percent of average.

Joining us now from the California mountains is NPR's Kirk Siegler. And, Kirk, I'm imagining you way at the top of some beautiful snowy peak. What exactly are you?

KIRK SIEGLER, BYLINE: Well, if I could see it. Actually, it's been snowing so heavily throughout the day, and the wind is howling. And I've had to actually get underneath this just to talk to you - underneath this roof overhang where there's big icicles. But, Mary Louise, I'm at about 9,000 feet. I'm near the town of Mammoth Lakes, Calif.

KELLY: All right.

SIEGLER: And there's officially, we're told, 12 feet of snow where I am. But from looking out from here, the snowdrifts are a lot higher, maybe two - three stories high, one that I'm looking at now.


SIEGLER: There's so much snow here. In fact, there's so much that they're having a hard time figuring out where to put it all and where to park cars. And locals are telling me - you know, achy backs and shoulders from weeks of relentless shoveling. And this latest storm cycle that we're in that we're looking at today is a huge one. And there's even heavier snow being reported over on the other side of the mountains near where they did that snowpack measuring that you just mentioned and where the forecast is.

KELLY: Wow. OK, so this is great news for - if you're a skier, if you're a snowboarder. But putting recreation aside, this is a big deal in a part of the country where I feel like you're always reporting on wildfires and on historic drought.

SIEGLER: Well, exactly. It's hard to overstate just how closely watched these monthly forecasts are with the snowpack measurements. They always generate big headlines here because there's - as you say, there's so much at stake. In California anyway, pretty much all of the water for a year comes from the snow and the rain that we get in a period of about four months. So 153 percent of average, as you said, is huge because the snowpack is the water storage for millions of people in California and the West. And we're talking about billions of dollars in farming assets are also at stake.

You know, these forecasts, Mary Louise, are guidebooks. You could look at them as guidebooks for water managers who operate the snow-fed reservoirs so they can predict how much water they'll have when all this snow melts and when to allocate it. And this forecasting and this planning is starting to really - in my view, turning into an art form. It's a work in progress because we keep seeing these huge storm cycles and then the next month maybe nothing. The faucet is turned off, and we're back in intense drought. So things are getting very hard to predict.

KELLY: What are climate scientists saying about all this snow?

SIEGLER: Good question. You know, as you likely know, climate scientists are reluctant to pinpoint any one or, you know, a couple of weeks or this last month from Montana to California of...

KELLY: Sure.

SIEGLER: ...Huge snows on climate change itself. But they do say these types of erratic swings, these bursts, the feast then the famine, are getting more dramatic and more intense, especially here in California, which is used to tough weather. I asked Dan Cayan about this. He's with the Scripps Institution of Oceanography. Let's hear what he says.

DAN CAYAN: It's certainly a harbinger of what may become the rule rather than the exception. I think this is going to put a premium on better forecasting.

KELLY: Better forecasting - we've just got a few seconds, but what does he mean?

SIEGLER: Well, the forecasting technology has improved very much, but it's got to get better according to climate scientists and a lot of local planners if we're going to be able to cope with climate change and all this increased volatility.

KELLY: NPR's Kirk Siegler reporting from a blizzard. Stay warm. Thanks, Kirk.

SIEGLER: Will do, Mary Louise. Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

As a correspondent on NPR's national desk, Kirk Siegler covers rural life, culture and politics from his base in Boise, Idaho.