Heavy snow could make driving treacherous on Christmas Eve but will bring encouraging news to drought-weary Californians: The all-important Sierra Nevada snowpack is getting healthier.
Storms earlier this week lifted the snowpack to 112 percent of average as of early Wednesday, according to the state Department of Water Resources. That figure is almost certain to rise with another storm expected to roll in late Wednesday evening and continue through much of Thursday.
The suddenly ample snowpack shows how quickly California’s water picture can change, at least in the short run. Just two days ago, despite weeks of intermittently wet weather, the snowpack was still just 86 percent of average for this time of year, and forecasters were cautioning that Californians should prepare for a fifth year of drought.
That sobering outlook remains in effect. No matter how much snow falls this week, California will continue to face a debilitating “water deficit” that has accumulated over the past four years. Experts say the state will need a full winter of snowfall that’s considerably above average before anyone can begin to entertain thoughts that the drought is over.
Nonetheless, the latest snowpack measurements are bringing cheer to California’s water community. The numbers represent a bright contrast with a year ago, when the snowpack stood at just 54 percent of average in December despite relatively heavy rainfall in the Sacramento area.
More precipitation was expected in a “cold and quick-hitting” storm beginning late Wednesday and extending into Christmas Eve, the National Weather Service said. The weather service warned motorists heading into the mountains to be on the lookout for road hazards.
“We’ve been telling people to be patient and be prepared for nasty weather if they’re going up to Tahoe,” said Caltrans spokesman Gilbert Mohtes-Chan. “Carry chains and go slow.”
He said Christmastime in the Sierra is particularly challenging because the roads get clogged with motorists who aren’t experienced mountain drivers.
The forecast calls for 1 to 2 feet of snow falling at elevations above 4,500 feet, and lighter accumulations reaching to foothills communities as low as 1,500 feet. The Sacramento Valley can expect as much as a half inch of rain.
The snow is welcome news for California’s ski industry, which suffered through a dismally dry 2014-15 season that forced the premature closure of seven Tahoe-area resorts.
“The excitement is very strong this year,” said Mike Reitzell of the California Ski Industry Association.
Last year’s season got off to a good start, too, before tailing off when the snow stopped falling in January. But the snow is blanketing the Sierra ski slopes far more generously this year than at any point last year.
“Almost every storm that’s come through has been snowing from bottom to top at every resort,” Reitzell said.
Kirkwood Mountain Resort, in fact, was forced to close Tuesday because of avalanche warnings. The resort reopened Wednesday.
Snow, not rain, will determine when the drought will end. The Sacramento area got two-thirds of its normal rainfall last winter, but the nearly nonexistent snowpack doomed the state to a fourth year of drought. In a normal year, melting snow from the Sierra replenishes the reservoirs in summer and provides California with water that couldn’t be stored safely behind dams during winter.
Because of that, a true picture of the snowpack’s size won’t emerge until early April, when it traditionally is at its peak.
“The fact is, it’s going to take the entire winter season to know if we’ve achieved enough precipitation to make a meaningful dent in the drought,” said Doug Carlson, a spokesman for the Department of Water Resources. “We would really like to see what the snowpack is like April 1.”
It was last April 1, with the snowpack at just 5 percent of average, that Gov. Jerry Brown famously stood in a dry Sierra meadow and ordered the first mandatory urban water cutbacks in California’s history.
Even with encouraging news on the snowpack and El Niño expected to bring considerable precipitation starting in January, most forecasters say this winter’s storms probably won’t be enough to erase California’s enormous water deficit.
Tellingly, the governor has ordered the State Water Resources Control Board to extend the 25 percent urban conservation mandates through next October, assuming the drought hasn’t ended. The agency is expected to finalize the rules in February. Meanwhile, farmers have been told to expect limited supplies again in 2016.