Pounding rains, heavy snow: It's shaping up as another wintry week in Northern California.
A significant storm poured into the region Tuesday, the first stage of an extended wet period that's expected to continue through Friday and possibly into the weekend.
"It's a pretty good, wet five or six days or so," said Mike Kochasic of the National Weather Service in Sacramento.
After brief overnight drizzles, the rains started falling in earnest early Tuesday. Temperatures were warm at first, and motorists heading over the Sierra Nevada found themselves dealing with raindrops instead of snow.
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That wound change soon enough. Idamis Del Valle, another weather service forecaster, said the rain was expected to turn into snow sometime Tuesday evening. By Wednesday, snow accumulations were expected to reach 3 feet in some parts of the Sierra, and Caltrans officials told drivers to be prepared for chain restrictions and general slow going.
"It should be pretty heavy; they're forecasting 2 feet of snow over the passes," said Caltrans spokesman Steve Nelson. Caltrans imposed chain controls on I-80 late Tuesday afternoon, and the weather service issued a winter storm warning through Wednesday.
Rainfall levels were expected to reach 0.75 inches in the Valley late Tuesday. All told, the storm is expected to bring about 2 inches of rain in Sacramento and higher amounts in other Valley communities, and 6 feet of snow or more in the Sierra. Snow was expected to fall at elevations as low as 3,000 feet.
Climate experts, though, said the flurry of wet weather that began two weeks ago doesn't mean California is getting a "March miracle" that will rescue the state from a dry winter.
"Not even close," said Jan Null of Golden Gate Weather Services, a private forecasting firm. "It's too little, too late."
As of Tuesday morning, the Sierra snowpack stood at just 36 percent of normal for this time of year. The Department of Water Resources' index of rain and snow in Northern California was at 64 percent of normal. Null and Daniel Swain, a climatologist at UCLA, said there simply isn't enough time this season to make up for weeks of unusually dry weather.
"All indications are we're not even going to come close" to a normal winter, Swain said.
Null said Sacramento, for instance, gets about 18 or 19 inches of rain in a normal winter. So far it has received about 10 inches. To achieve normal levels, the city would have to get another 8 or 9 inches of rain this month, a nearly impossible task, he said.
The five-year drought officially ended last April, by order of Gov. Jerry Brown, and most experts say it's too early to say if California is headed into another one. Most of California's major reservoirs are in good shape, thanks to last winter's historic rainfalls, which should provide some cushion heading into this summer.