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For snow tracker, lots of attention but little work to do

For snow tracker, lots of attention but little work to do
California Gov. Jerry Brown, right, looks on as Frank Gehrke, chief of snow surveys for the California Department of Water Resources, describes the average height of the snow near Lake Tahoe. The green tape at his right hand is a little more than five feet high. (Max Whittaker / Getty Images)

Frank Gehrke has been measuring the snowpack at this site south of Lake Tahoe for nearly two decades, but Wednesday was unique. It was the first time he was joined by California's governor, and the first time he was watched by a phalanx of television cameras.

It was also the first time he didn't have any snow to measure.

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"This is bad news," Gehrke said matter-of-factly.

The nearly nonexistent snow throughout the Sierra Nevada mountains means little water will melt into California's rivers and reservoirs, and Gov. Jerry Brown has ordered mandatory restrictions on water use for the first time in state history.

Before speaking to the media, Gehrke led Brown around the bone-dry meadow while holding a tall metal pole. A green piece of tape more than five-feet high marked the average snow level, but there was not a snowflake in sight. The nearby south fork of the American River, which feeds into Folsom Lake, was lower than usual.

As chief of the California Cooperative Snow Survey Program, Gehrke usually works without so much fanfare. Maybe a camera or two click away as he takes measurements – marking the depth of the snow and weighing a sample to determine its water content.

The 67-year-old Sacramento resident often needs skis or snowshoes to do his job.

On Wednesday, he merely wore hiking shoes.

Although Gehrke faced an unusual media spotlight, he wouldn't mind a similar level of attention next year, but for different reasons.

"If we have a big year [for snow], we'll have a lot of cameras," he said hopefully.

Follow @chrismegerian for more updates from Sacramento.

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