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High in the Sierra Nevada, brave souls peer into watery futu

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High in the Sierra Nevada, brave souls peer into watery futu

Postby ERIC » Sat Mar 29, 2008 4:36 pm

High in the Sierra Nevada, brave souls peer into our watery future

By Alex Breitler
Record Staff Writer
March 29, 2008 6:00 AM

PIONEER - Snow surveyors are a happy bunch. Once a month each season, dozens of them strap on skis or snowshoes and gallivant through the frozen Sierra Nevada while everyone else, it seems, is sitting at a desk.

But let's not trivialize their task.

These hardy hikers give us our first glimpse of the state's water fortunes for the coming year. Their work is relevant to anyone who uses water to drink, bathe, wash, rinse, irrigate or play.

A maddeningly dry March is nearly over, and so comes the realization that we're not likely to get much more snow. What started out as a superstar water year is now a ho-hum average - and average isn't much when you consider climate change, reservoirs that are already lower than normal and legal clashes over how much water should be available for cities, farms and fish.

"What's amazing is you look all around at all this snow, and it's still not enough," said Mike Hewitt, 61, of Pioneer, a volunteer who helps with snow surveys on federal lands each winter.

Stockton, incidentally, is on pace for the driest March since 1956, when the city got precisely zero inches of rain. This year, as of Friday afternoon, the city had seen two-hundredths of an inch.

But the focus this week is on the Sierra snow, which is more valuable than rain since it slowly melts during the spring and summer and can be stored more efficiently in reservoirs.

Enter Hewitt and two colleagues, Marilyn Muse-Meyer and Mike Stroude. On Friday, they pulled their green U.S. Forest Service rig to the side of the Highway 88 somewhere west of Silver Lake and trudged off in the snow, carrying hollow steel poles that are periodically plunged into the frozen pack.

It's not so much the depth they're interested in - it's the water content. That's why they weigh the snow that accumulates inside the pole, dutifully noting numbers that will soon be plugged into a huge statewide database.

The ritual is repeated monthly at 264 other snow courses throughout the state. Some are virtually right off the highway; others involve miles-long trips into the backcountry in snowmobiles or by helicopter.

Some surveyors will ski 10 to 15 miles and climb more than 5,000 feet in one day.

"When the weather's good, this is one of my favorite jobs," said 55-year-old Stroude, who's been adding up the inches for a quarter-century.

On Friday, the crew started at a familiar large Jeffrey pine and punched holes in the snow every 50 feet, a distance checked carefully with a tape measure that has seen many a survey season.

Dealing with the pole is tricky. Sometimes you hit a sheet of ice and have to bust your way through. If you remove the pole and there's no dirt on the end, that's a do-over, because you may not have hit the ground.

"It can be brutal," Stroude said.

Sometimes the weather turns. When it does, Stroude, said, "You try to get out of there as fast as you can."

The first snow surveying in the United States took place in the Sierra in the early 1900s, according to the state Department of Water Resources, which oversees the $1.6 million monitoring program.

In the past, surveyors did their jobs in relative obscurity.

Not anymore. Snow surveys in California have become highly anticipated and widely publicized events.

"I'm kind of surprised," said Frank Gehrke, who heads the state program, which relies heavily on data submitted from other agencies, including the Forest Service.

"Usually, there's a lot of attention if there's a really dry or really wet year," he said. "Here we are, smack dab in the middle. But I do think there's more heightened awareness of the overall water problem."

Contact reporter Alex Breitler at (209) 546-8295 or abreitler@recordnet.com.
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