Three Caltrans workers operating large pieces of machinery began plowing Sonora Pass Monday morning, while state officials about 90 miles northeast conducted a survey that showed California’s mountain snowpack will likely remain well below average for the year.

Each year, Caltrans plows the snow that accumulates along Highway 108 over Sonora Pass to prepare for the route’s annual spring opening. The early-April survey, meanwhile, is considered the “most important” of the year in terms of forecasting the state’s water supply.

“Barring any major disasters or breakdowns, we plan on being at Eagle Meadows in a week,” said Chris Baker, the Long Barn-area maintenance supervisor for Caltrans.

Eagle Meadows is roughly six miles from where the crew started Monday morning at Sno-Park, about seven miles east of Strawberry. Baker’s eight-man crew is responsible for plowing a 30-mile stretch from the closure gate at Sno-Park to the top of Sonora Pass at 9,624 feet elevation.

The agency’s goal each year is to have the road open by Memorial Day Weekend.

Steve Belitz, an equipment operator for Caltrans, was behind the wheel of a Snowcat that was pushing snow toward an already plowed area to be scooped up by a snowblower’s large rotating blades and blown far off the roadway.

There was about two feet of snow near Cascade Creek at about 6,000 elevation Monday morning.

A manual snow survey conducted the same day by the state Department of Water Resources at Phillips Station, about 6,800 feet elevation 90 miles northeast of Sonora, measured about 32 inches of snow.

The water content in the snow was 12.4 inches on Monday. While that’s 53 percent more than a survey conducted on March 5, it’s 49 percent of the historical average of about 25.2 inches for the date.

Monday’s reading was about 34 inches less than the amount of water content that was in the snowpack at Phillips Station about the same time last year, which was 183 percent of average for the date.

“Despite recent storms, today’s snow survey shows that we’re still playing catch-up when it comes to our statewide water supplies,” Gehrke said. “While today’s snow survey determined that the water content is much higher than February, the state will remain well below average for the year.”

The water content in the statewide snowpack was measured at 14.6 inches on Monday, which was 52 percent of the historical average.

According to the Department of Water Resources, the snowpack typically provides roughly one-third of the entire state’s water supply each year.

Snow surveys are conducted by state officials each month from early January through early May to help gauge the water supply for the rest of the year.

The annual early-April survey is considered the most important in terms of forecasting the state’s water supply because the snowpack is normally at its peak before beginning to melt as spring temperatures rise.

“These snowpack results — while better than they were a few weeks ago — still underscore the need for widespread careful and wise use of our water supplies,” said Karla Nemeth, director of the state Department of Water Resources.
This year’s below-average snowpack follows on the heels of one that was nearly double the historical average in the Sierra Nevada.

Scientists have long predicted that a warming climate will lead to prolonged drier periods dotted with years of heavy precipitation. The five years prior to last had below-average snowpacks due to drought.

“We need to make our water system more resilient so we’re prepared for the extreme fluctuations in our water system, especially in the face of climate change,” Nemeth said.

Contact Alex MacLean at amaclean@uniondemocrat.com or (209) 588-4530.

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