Waiting on El Niño

Will this finally be the winter that brings water to the West?

THE DONNER PARTY MEMORIAL in Truckee, Calif., stands 22 feet tall, indicating the depth of the snow during the fateful winter of 1846-47. The snowstorms began in early November, trapping the Donners and other families near a frozen lake, deep in the high Sierra Nevada, until rescuers were able to reach them in March. Of course, we all know the rest of that story…

Last winter, the since-named Donner Lake received less than two feet of snow, and four years of low snowpack and drought has delivered a beatdown to the Lake Tahoe Basin. The Truckee River is the only outlet of massive Lake Tahoe, but the lake level dropped below the outlet in October 2014, before a single flake fell in the Sierra Nevada, leaving miles of the river dry. The tale of the Truckee is familiar across a parched California and thirsty American West. The drought crept up the left coast during the winter of 2015, leaving Washington and Oregon with recordlow snowfall, and spread east to the Northern Rockies, with many Montana rivers suffering one of their hottest and driest seasons on record.

This year, the West's best weapon—the ocean-warming weather beast, El Niño—has become a beacon of hope, with many weather outlets predicting it will be one of the strongest on record. For those unfamiliar with the term, El Niño is a weather event that occurs inconsistently every two to seven years, and is based on above-average water temperatures in the eastern equatorial Pacific. The phenomenon first got its name, naturally, from a fisherman—a Peruvian in the 1800s who first noticed that these warm ocean currents would show up around Christmastime. (The literal translation is "the child".)

The World Meteorological Organization published a statement on its website in mid-November that included this sentence: "Models and expert opinion suggest that peak 3-month average surface water-temperatures in the east-central tropical Pacific Ocean will exceed 2 degrees Celsius above average, placing this El Niño event among the three strongest previous events since 1950 (1972-73, 1982-83, 1997-98)."

El niño may not be a cure-all, but it could help the west turn the page, increasing precipitation enough to build significant snowpack and raise near-empty reservoir levels. Heavy storms have already poured rain over much of the Pacific Northwest, igniting record November chinook catches along the Oregon Coast. On December 7, Portland's roads became rivers when the city received more than 3 inches of rain—shattering its 24-hour rainfall record for the month. That same system dumped 41 inches of snow at Mt. Hood Meadows. And snow also began flying early in the Rockies and Sierra. As of December 15, early-season Sierra snowpack percentages were already nearing last winter's totals, raising hopes for a long season that could translate to steady, cold flows for fish this spring and summer.

"We're looking at a very strong El Niño," says Jeff Renner, chief meteorologist for KING 5 News in Seattle. "Possibly as strong as 1997-1998, maybe stronger, and it is expected to peak sometime this winter." That '97-'98 event, being one of the most powerful El Niños on record, generated torrential rains and heavy snowpack in California. Though previous predictions regarding El Niño have proven to be highly speculative, California is trending cold and wet already, and the website AccuWeather announced the day after Thanksgiving that, "The strongest El Niño in 50 years will unfold this winter and significantly alter the chances for a white Christmas across the country."

If the storms are large enough, they may drop precipitation on regions as far away from the ocean as western Montana or the Midwest. Past El Niños have had negative effects as well, causing floods and crop damage in some areas around the world. But they are also associated with milder Atlantic hurricane seasons, and always carry with them a certain level of drought-busting potential. According to one study, the U.S. economy benefitted by more than $22 billion during the strong '97-'98 cycle. (But the cycle also caused massive mudslides in Pacifico, Calif., and, according to a different study, destroyed an estimated $35 billion in crops and property around the world.)

During the summers of 2014 and 2015, the Truckee River ran very low and warm. Minimal water releases from five reservoirs struggled to keep the river alive. The famous Fanny Bridge fish (so named because people love to lean over the railings to stare at the giant trout in the Truckee below) were relocated, the river was closed, and anglers fretted over the specter of a fish kill. The bad conditions left the Tahoe angling community in a miserable state. After early snowfall this winter, that attitude was already shifting to optimism. "This El Niño so far is ringing true," says Truckee guide Matt Heron. "It's been cold and snowing, and even though the river is still low, it's very fishable. We expected to find anemic fish when the river reopened in September, but they're actually really healthy." Anglers across California are ready for similar, positive diagnoses for the rest of the state after a white winter.

In October 1997, Chris Farley played a wrestler/weather phenomenon El Niño on Saturday Night Live, proclaiming, "Any time! Any coast! I swear to God Almighty it is time to pay the piper, 'cause El Niño's coming for ya! And it ain't gonna be pretty!" Challenge accepted. Let's put winter back on the map. Bring it on El Niño. Bring it on.