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El Nino a Bust for Sierra Snow Surveyors

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PHILLIPS STATION --

The meadow at the base of the Sierra-at-Tahoe Ski Resort was a blanket of thick snow -- five feet deep in spots.

State snow surveyors got decent snow and water content readings there on Tuesday, measuring in at 97 percent of average.

But it was still a disappointment for state water regulators who were hoping that this El Nino year would bring above-average snowfall.

Southern California is worse off than in the Norther Sierra. The statewide snowpack average is just 87 percent of average in what was expected to be a bumper precipitation year.

"We started out great and then it all fell apart," said Frank Gehrke, chief of the California Cooperative Snow Surveys Program.

January snows were heavy, February was a disappointment, and recent snows did nothing to improve the Sierra snowpack, which provides 30 percent of California's water needs in the form of snow melt and runoff.

Still, the very same meadow last year at this time had no snow at all and was the location of Governor Jerry Brown's warning of severe drought regulations to come.

"A big improvement compared to last year but not what we had hoped for," said Gehrke.

Gehrke did say storage reservoirs are much better off and are filling up to their historical averages. But those reservoirs must release water for a variety of uses and without an adequate snow pack water may be in short supply again.

Some water agencies and downstream users are clamoring for a lifting of severe drought restrictions because of the recent storms. Snow surveyors say it will be up to state water policy makers to decide what to make of the survey numbers and whether they can allocate more water for certain uses.