Record Sierra Nevada Snow and Agricultural Impacts

March 25, 2011; 12:35 PM ET
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The San Joaquin River in California flows down the Sierra Nevada through much of the central valley. Almost all the water is channeled north and south from Friant Dam, feeding some of the nation's most productive farmland. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)

Record snow has been piling up in the Sierra Nevada this winter, bringing big business to ski resorts, and this will have great benefits for agriculture this summer.

To say that feet of snow have fallen in the Sierra Nevada this year would be an understatement as some areas have received a whopping 20 yards or more.

Squaw Valley has received 670 inches of snow with 589 inches of snow falling on Mammoth Mountain this winter. Both locations have now had their snowiest seasons on record. Normal snowfall for Mammoth is 343 inches.

Prior to the storm Thursday, Alpine Meadows had received a phenomenal 744 inches (62 feet or 20.7 yards).

The Sierra Nevada typically get a lot of snow, but what is most important this year is the amount of water locked up in that snow. The amount, over 40 inches in much of the region, is averaging 150% of normal.

The storms that have come ashore have had a great deal of moisture with them, as evidenced by the rounds of flooding problems and mudslides experienced thus far.

The runoff generated by the melting snow to come will greatly aid the drinking water situation and just as important the water needed for agricultural purposes.

In anticipation of the runoff, the agricultural water allocation for the Central Valley has already been raised in recent months and may be raised even more.

This map of the snowcover water equivalent appears courtesy of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

Due to recent years of drought, agricultural interests have been hit with restrictions on the amount of water they are allowed to use.

Flooding, Other Risks Caused by Excessive Snowfall

There is almost always bad with the good, and California is certainly no exception to this rule.

Western Weather Expert Meteorologist Ken Clark points out, referring to the spring thaw, "Streams and rivers will run fast, deep and cold for some time, depending on how quickly the weather warms."

Clark said, "When the weather does get hot, people will flock to the rivers for recreation, such as white water activities."

"The danger is the water may be running very fast and will be very cold raising the risk of hypothermia, even with air temperatures above 90 degrees," Clark added.

The risk of high water and flooding will continue even if no warm storms come with heavy rain in the mountains. However, such an occurrence could make matters worse for flooding below.

More Storms with Snow Coming

The winter storm season continues in the Sierra Nevada with additional snow of 2 to 4 feet forecast this weekend.

Storms from the Pacific may continue to cross at least part of the mountains into April.

Despite the overall optimistic outlook for water resources this season, officials continued to encourage conservation efforts in the Golden State.

According to the 2010 Census Data, California has the greatest population of any state with over 37 million people living there. Some parts of the state have seen a 25 percent increase since the last Census in 2000.

The population growth and resulting demand for water has and continues to put a strain on water resources.


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