In Response to Expecting a Niño during El Niño

‘97 Not an El Niño Year

As much as I enjoyed Eddy Ancinas’ first-person account of her experiences in the 1997 New Year’s flood in Expecting a Niño during El Niño in the January issue, I would feel remiss if I didn’t point out that the winter of 1996-97 was not an El Niño-influenced winter. That winter was an ENSO (El Niño Southern Oscillation) neutral year, which means that there were no warmer  or cooler than normal sea surface temperatures in the equatorial Pacific. In essence, the Pacific Ocean had a “normal” temperature that winter. If ENSO neutral winters have any climatic signature, it’s one that includes a wet mantle flood event, which was what occurred in late December 1996. A strong atmospheric river with a deep subtropical component brought extremely heavy rain with high snow levels on top of a hefty early season snowpack. The Truckee River flood of January 1997 was caused by several factors. First, the two previous years (1995 and 1996) had been very wet in the Sierra, and Lake Tahoe’s water level was within inches of its legal maximum of 6,229 feet above sea level with little room for additional storage. (Tahoe is currently about eight feet lower than in 1996.) Second, a major winter storm on Dec. 21 and 22, 1996, dumped seven feet of snow at lake level, setting up an above average snowpack. Third, a vigorous “pineapple express” weather pattern brought extremely heavy rain into the Sierra at the end of December 1996, with snow levels as high as 11,700 feet on Jan.1. An incredible amount of rainfall and snowmelt runoff poured out of the mountains from Dec. 30, 1996 to Jan. 6, 1997. At Blue Canyon, nearly 19 inches of rain fell in just three days, with storm total precipitation in the Feather River drainage exceeding 35 inches. Indicative of the exceptional runoff, an estimated 25 inches of rain and snowmelt cascaded out of Squaw Creek Basin, which caused substantial structural damage in Squaw Valley. Lake Tahoe was pushed over its legal limit (to its highest level since 1917), which forced Federal Water Master Garry Stone to fully open all 17 gates in the Tahoe dam. The resulting flood crest inundated the Truckee River floodplain from Squaw Creek to beyond Reno. Nearly every bridge across Highway 89 between Tahoe City and Truckee was destroyed or seriously damaged; if homes and businesses are included, the total cost was $11 million in damages in the upper Truckee River watershed alone. In several Eastern Sierra watersheds, the 1997 runoff exceeded 100-year flood flows. A historic flood? Yes. Was El Niño the culprit? Not at all.

~ Mark McLaughlin,  Carnelian Bay


Please Take Care 

After four years of drought, it was truly a magical sight to see the Tahoe area covered in snow to ring in the New Year. As expected and hoped for, the snow also brought in droves of people excited to play in all this great snow. It was wonderful to see so many families making new memories on the ski hills and sled hills around the region.

With the crowds also came a much-needed infusion to the economy that is still reeling from the less-than-stellar snow seasons these past four years. Hotel rooms were full, restaurants were crowded, and ski resorts were at capacity. For the first time in years, help wanted signs are posted on windows.

By most accounts, it was a win-win for the snow revelers and the local businesses.

But we owe an apology to our mountains. In all this wonder and glory over the new snow, we forgot to take care of the environment. In all the excitement to sled, we left behind more than just tracks. In all the excitement to snowshoe, we left behind more than extra big footprints. In all the excitement to get powder runs, we left behind more than our cars in the parking lots. We left water bottles, broken sleds, trash that blew out of the car, cigarette butts, and beer bottles.

No one means to trash the area; it is just something that happens when the joy of playing in Tahoe gets in the way. If you’ve just been sledding for two hours in subfreezing temperatures, your thoughts are probably more on getting the kids back into a warm car than if you remembered that water bottle that rolled away, or that sled that broke in half on the last run down. If you are eager to be first in line at the lift, it is hard to notice the trash that blew out of the car while you were shutting the trunk. With so many people around, it is hard to stop and look around without losing your spot in line.

As a region, we need to do a better job of reminding folks to take care. We need to share the culture of care-taking in the region that we know exists and can exist if we all just pay a little more attention.

We need more trash cans in high traffic areas during the busy season. We need more Take Care signs around to give gentle reminders to hide trash in trash cans, and not behind trees or in the snow.

Since 2013, a group of organizations in Tahoe has been working on creating a culture of care-taking in the Tahoe region. Through a funny and clever campaign called Take Care, the team created a series of reminders that poke fun at the mistakes we all make when we aren’t paying attention. Launched this summer, the messages can be seen in places like downtown Tahoe City, at the Village at Squaw, on the dog beaches of Incline Village, and atop the mountains at Northstar and Heavenly. All of the materials are available for free for anyone to use at

If we all work together, we can create a win-win-win for everyone, including the environment.

~ The Lake Tahoe Outreach Committee

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