Unusually snowy hills of the Shasta Valley lie beneath alpenglow-bathed Mount Shasta.
As we near the end of winter (at this point, I can’t wait!), it is worth considering the snowpack that has developed and how things look going into the warmer months. This can be done both anecdotally and with data and both are useful at this point. The water that falls here in the mountains at the far northern end of the state has considerable bearing on the water fortunes of the rest of California as well as helping prepare for the kind of fire season that may manifest. Both are critically important both locally and statewide.
I want to first address the data that is available at this time. According to the National Resource Conservation Service, which is part of the US Department of Agriculture, as of the beginning of March, the Mount Shasta area was at 88% of normal snowpack. This figure was averaged from the snowpack percentages of both the Upper Sacramento River and Klamath River watersheds.
Western watersheds and snowpack conditions. Mount Shasta marked with red dot.
That data is available on this map, which has a ton of resources and is worth exploring. Of those two watersheds, the Upper Sacramento is more pertinent to Mount Shasta, since the SNOTEL stations and California Cooperative Snow Survey sites that are in the Mount Shasta vicinity are located in this watershed. According to the map, the Upper Sacramento watershed was at 94% at the beginning of March. This area includes the western Trinity Divide, the southern half of Mount Shasta, the Sacramento River down to the Shasta Dam, the McCloud River watershed and the entire Pit River watershed, which notably contains the high country of the Warner Mountains.
The Upper Sacramento River, as per NRCS data, is marked in blue. Mount Shasta marked red.
This is encouraging data. The large storm we had in January went a long way towards establishing a quality snowpack. The area to the north and west, in the Klamath River watershed, is slightly less well off, with 82% of normal as of the beginning of March. This area contains the preponderance of the Klamath Mountains and the east side of the Cascades deep into Oregon, reaching just north of Crater Lake. Obviously this area is pretty diverse and the data for the whole region can be skewed by one area having more or less snow.
Here’s another way to look at the data (be sure to check this page out, which shows annual Snow Water Equivalent all the way back to 1981). Thus far, by mid-March, we are approaching the 30 year (1981-2010) median for water content of the snow that has fallen. We are still off about 2 inches of SWE from the median peak. Again, we are not really at average yet, but this winter has not been a total disaster. For example, the graph below shows this winter (black line) compared to the wretched drought years of 2014 (purple line) and 2015 (orange line).
Obviously we are doing significantly better than those severe drought years. While I would be happier if the winter had produced a deeper snowpack, it has certainly not been a bust and there is a good accumulation of snow. We still have two weeks of March (and rain/snow imminent as I write this) as well as a good chance for more precipitation in April. Naturally, I am ready for some warm spring weather (and Castle Crags exploration!) I won’t argue with more water padding the totals we have gotten thus far.
Though it does not seem to correlate with the data on the NRCS, the numbers according to the Mount Shasta Herald’s site paints a much starker picture. It states that downtown Mount Shasta has only received 12.67 inches. I am not certain what the annual average is but that seems low. In addition, the report lists Stouts Meadow, which is often one of the wettest places in Northern California and its 39.66 inches is lower than what other years have produced. Other areas look lower than normal as well, though none of the averages are cited.
While some of these numbers are pretty good, they don’t necessarily reconcile with the MSH’s numbers. The NRCS data looks good but the MSH numbers seems bleak. This leads to the anecdotal aspect of this snowpack assessment. It is my observation that the winter seems just about normal. With the big storm we had in January depositing a lot of snow in the mountains (especially the Trinity Divide, whereas Mount Shasta’s snow was seemingly blown off by some pretty violent winds), I suspect a good base was laid down. That was reflected with the NRCS numbers that only ran up to the beginning of March. Since then, we have had three notable weather systems pass through the area. Between the three storms, we have had a considerable amount of snow dropped. The accumulated depth (at least at my house) was upwards of three feet of snow. Consider these images from around my house and cabin:
I don’t know if these images do the accumulation justice but it was a lot. In these cases, the snow dropped, settled, melted a little and then had more piled on. The last two storms in particular left over 2 feet between them. Between the lateness in the winter and the slight warming trend we had been enjoying, I had not mentally prepared myself for the amount of snow we got. Both of the latter storms required significant snow clearing.
In the middle of all that, I also managed to take the boy scout troop for which I am scoutmaster on the annual snow camping trip on Mount Shasta. I am grateful that I am able to get these guys out there, even when so many are missing out on so much of life due to virus conditions. Many of these boys would still be stuck at home without something like boy scouts giving them some great memories and experience. Thankfully, the snow is there too. Winter may be coming to an end, but there is still plenty of snow to enjoy for the time being!
To summarize what I have looked at here, according to the NRCS, at the beginning of March the Upper Sacramento and Klamath watersheds had 94% and 82% of normal snowpack, respectively. Since that time, three weather systems have dropped significant precipitation in the area. Consequently, I have to assume that, at the least, the Upper Sacramento watershed might be approaching 100% of normal snowpack as of mid-March. The Klamath, which was lagging, must have improved significantly and if it is not at 100% of normal must be near to it. The one caveat to this is that, for as much snow fell, it was fairly dry and did not have a big water content. Nonetheless, considering how much snow actually fell, it is a positive addition to the snowpack.
The winter may have started later than normal but once it got going, we have done pretty well. A good storm in December, a big one in January and some strong systems in March have helped build a decent snowpack that looks to be close to a normal winter’s accumulation. There is still room in the wet season to pad that out with more snow and rain too. This is good news for the Mount Shasta area and for California!
A frozen sunrise in the Shasta Valley.