Sierra Snow: Good for Drought, Bad for Christmas Travel

Sierra snow (Rich Pedroncelli / Associated Press)
Rich Pedroncelli / Associated Press

Plentiful snow in the Sierra Nevada mountains this week has brought good tidings for drought-ravaged California–but less pleasant news for millions of motorists who will take to the state’s main interstate for Christmas travel.

Snowpack levels for the mountain range exceed their normal levels at this date for the first time in two years, according to the Los Angeles Times. News of the robust snowpack is a small but welcome development as California enters a likely fifth year of record drought.

By January of last year, Sierra Nevada snowpack levels had fallen to just 25 percent of normal for the time of year, paving the way for a dry, snowless season that greatly exacerbated the drought. By early June, the mountain snowpack had officially disappeared.

California relies on Sierra snowpack accumulated in winter for as much as up to a third of its water supply throughout the year. While the above-average December snowpack totals are encouraging, the real test will come on April 1, when the snowpack is meant to hit peak levels before it begins melting off in spring and summer. Spring snowpack levels will likely depend on the ultimate strength of the coming El Niño, which some experts have said will be the strongest event of its kind ever recorded in North America.

Meanwhile, Lake Tahoe has risen by 1.92 inches as more than 6 billion gallons of water brought by the storms have poured into the lake, according to the San Francisco Chronicle. In October of last year, water levels dipped below the lake’s natural rim for the first time in five years.

While the Sierra storms are good news for a state wracked by drought, the snow is almost certain to cause headaches for motorists expecting to hit the roads for Christmas this week. The National Weather Service has warned drivers that snow, ice and rainy conditions could close a portion of Interstate 5, or the Tejon Pass through the Grapevine, on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day.

“Holiday travel in the foothills and mountains will be impacted with significant travel delays and chain controls,” the service warned. Motorists are urged to keep a spare flashlight, food and water in their vehicles in the event of an emergency.


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