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After driest January on record, Reno eyes consecutive dry day streak

Three people are standing outdoors and measuring the snow levels in late January 2022.
California Department of Water Resources

Last month, the city of Reno did not receive a single drop of rain or a single flake of snow at the Reno-Tahoe International Airport, and that’s the driest January the city has seen since the 1800s.

Chris Smallcomb is a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Reno, and he recently chatted with KUNR’s Noah Glick to break down the month and the water year ahead.

Noah Glick: Let’s talk about rainfall. We didn’t see any of it in Reno in the month of January. This was the driest January on record. Can you just tell me a little bit about what we saw this last month?

Chris Smallcomb: Yeah. This last month, I mean, it’s just quite the change. You know, we had one of the wettest Decembers and Octobers on record here in a lot of Western Nevada and the Sierra. November was pretty quiet, but that happens somewhat frequently. But for January just to totally shut down, that’s something we’ve never seen in the period of record at Reno, where we haven’t even recorded a drop of rain or seen a snowflake.

And for January, that’s our month where we’re typically accumulating our biggest snowpacks, and that was not the case this year.

Glick: In talking with you earlier this year after that wet December, we had flashes of 2017 again, you know, potentially huge amounts of precipitation for January. It didn’t happen, though. I’m just curious how far back do these records go? How significant is this?

Smallcomb: Yeah, so the records for Reno go back to 1893. So, the fact that we didn’t see any precipitation in January, again during what is typically a fairly busy month for us storm-wise, that is just something we’ve never seen before. And especially coming on the heels of just such a wet December and October, for ... the atmosphere just to totally shut off, that is highly, highly unusual.

One thing it is kind of bringing back some memories of is the winter of 2012-13, where we actually did see the atmosphere more or less turn off after the new year. The snowpack kind of flatlined, like it is in this case. But even then, we saw at least a little bit of precipitation in January.

Glick: Yeah, not zero, which is what we got this month. I know you can’t forecast too far out in advance or predict too much in advance, but do we have any precipitation on the horizon, any rain or snow that we might see here to kick off February?

Smallcomb: Um, no. I was looking at our latest models, and our good predictability is usually out to about a week or two, and we’re really not seeing anything during that timeframe, through about Valentine’s Day. A ridge of high pressure parked off the West Coast is going to block a lot of the wetter storms from hitting us. It’s going to drive in some of those cool inland systems, but even those won’t produce much precipitation. They’ll just produce that cool breezy conditions, like what we’re seeing today.

So our record mid-winter dry streak for Reno is 56 days, and that occurred in the winter of 2011-12. So that could get close to that. Right now, we’re at roughly 34 days since we’ve seen precipitation at Reno. So 56 days, that’s February 23. So it’s possible.

So, unfortunately, February’s looking somewhat grim on the snow front for the region. So we’re just gonna have to hope for that classic ‘Miracle March.’

Glick: I want to ask about our water outlook so far. Like you mentioned, we had somewhat of a roller coaster this year. October was incredibly wet. December was incredibly wet. And then it’s been dry other than that. So how close are we to our total precipitation for the year at this point? Or, what would happen if we didn’t get any more precipitation the rest of the year?

Smallcomb: Well, if we didn’t get any more precipitation for the rest of the year, it would definitely be highly unusual for at least for this water year. Typically we go through spring, and March and April have, at least in recent years, have seen some decent snowstorms up in the mountains. So I think there’s still some room for hope as we go into March and April.

That being said, the latest water supply forecasts coming down, let’s say [for] the Truckee and Carson Rivers, have come down quite a bit since we peaked at the end of December.

Glick: I remember last month talking about, “Was this month enough to get us out of the drought?” And now we’re talking about potentially not even hitting a full water year, right?

Smallcomb: Yeah. So we’re looking at about a 50/50 shot right now, based on the historical data, of actually hitting our normal peak snowpack up in the Sierra in March or early April. Fifty-fifty shot. If you had asked me four weeks ago, “It was a done deal. You know, it’s like 90%.” So, we’re at 50/50 at this point.

Chris Smallcomb is a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Reno. This interview aired on KUNR FM on Wednesday, Feb. 2.

Noah Glick is a former content director and host at KUNR Public Radio.
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