Storm drenches Sacramento, north state, puts a dent in drought

Sacramento River swells ahead of big storm

The Sacramento River seen from Old Sacramento on Dec. 15, 2016, during the leading edge of a storm.
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The Sacramento River seen from Old Sacramento on Dec. 15, 2016, during the leading edge of a storm.

Another rainstorm pounded much of the state Thursday, causing minor havoc in some areas but putting another dent in California’s five-year drought.

The storm was expected to continue into Friday, bringing rain in low-lying areas and snow to the Sierra Nevada. Rain gauges and reservoirs were filling up as California continued to experience one of the strongest starts to the rain season in years.

Fresh data showed California is making progress against the drought. The National Drought Mitigation Center in Lincoln., Neb., reported Thursday that 27 percent of the state was drought free, mainly in the far northern counties and the Bay Area.

“I think this is pretty nice,” said Jay Lund, director of the Center for Watershed Sciences at UC Davis. “It’s not the end of the drought, certainly, but it’s a good down payment on the end.”

Several experts warned, however, that California still hasn’t been getting enough snow. That could cause problems in the spring and summer, when water demand peaks. Although the National Weather Service said the latest storm could produce up to 3 feet of snow at the highest elevations, several experts said they believed the bulk of the precipitation would fall as rain.

There were problems reported Thursday. Drenching rains swelled Central Valley rivers and creeks, flooded some north state roads and parks and knocked down trees. At least three Sierra Nevada ski resorts closed amid avalanche warnings and reports of 100 mph winds along mountain peaks.

Several outdoor events in the Sacramento region were canceled, and the American River Parkway flooded as its namesake river reached its highest flows in a decade. High flows briefly trapped three men and a Labrador retriever on a river island near Howe Avenue until they could be rescued.

The so-called “atmospheric river” that rolled in from the Pacific Ocean had dumped up to 4 inches of rain in parts of Butte and Shasta counties by midday Thursday. The storm was expected to bring as much as 2 inches of rain to the Sacramento area by Friday morning.

Along with other recent storms, the latest rains continued the remarkably strong start to California’s wet season. Department of Water Resources rain gauges in the northern Sierra Nevada show that precipitation so far is 80 percent above normal.

“That’s on track with the wettest year on record,” said agency spokesman Doug Carlson, referring to the winter of 1982-83.

Northern California reservoirs are filling nicely, too. Shasta Lake, the state’s largest reservoir, is two-thirds full, twice what it was this time last year.

Folsom has 31 percent more water than usual for this time of year, and four times more than last year. On Thursday, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation increased flows on the American River to 35,000 cubic feet per second to make room in the reservoir to prevent downstream flooding later in the season. The river’s flows through Sacramento were the highest they’ve been since 2006.

Combined with high flows from the undammed streams that feed into the Sacramento River, the Yolo Bypass – the massive flood plain west of Sacramento – could flood by Saturday morning, Lund said.

Still, experts cautioned about being too optimistic that the end of the drought is near. They say the weather could dry up again without warning, and most of the precipitation in California’s brief rainy seasons tends to fall in January and February.

And for all the rain that fell, the state still isn’t getting enough snow. A healthy snowpack is crucial to lifting California out of the drought.

“That’s nature’s reservoir. It releases (water) slowly in the spring and summer, when we really need it,” Carlson said.

The state’s 100 or so “snow pillows” in the Sierra tell a less optimistic picture than the agency’s rain gauges. The snow pillows, a series of electronic sensors scattered around upper elevations, show that the “snow water equivalent” in the Sierra is only 54 percent of normal.

Although up to 3 feet of snow could fall at the upper elevations, experts such as state climatologist Michael Anderson said the storm would continue the recent pattern of more rain and less snow.

“The storms are warmer; the snow lines are higher,” Anderson said.

Sugar Bowl Resort announced Thursday that “due to extreme weather, all lifts will be closed for the rest of the day.” The resort expects to reopen on Friday. Heavenly closed all but two lifts on Thursday. Mount Rose and Northstar also closed Thursday.

The Sierra Avalanche Center, meanwhile, issued a warning Thursday of “considerable” avalanche danger near and above the treeline for the next 24 hours. Wind gusts were expected to reach 100 mph over some Sierra peaks. The weather service issued a winter storm warning for those traveling at 7,000 feet or higher through the mountains.

Even Southern California, which is experiencing much more severe drought conditions, was forecast to receive a fair share of much-needed rain from Thursday’s storms.

“I’m expecting anywhere between 2 to 3 inches in the foothills (near Los Angeles),” said NASA climatologist Bill Patzert. That compares with a total of just 1.4 inches so far this season, he said.

Mike Kochasic, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Sacramento, said “the sun will start peeking out” by early Friday afternoon in the Sacramento region.

Otherwise, Friday is expected to be partly sunny, with a high near 50. Fog and frost are expected to roll in Friday night as temperatures dip down around freezing.

Ryan Sabalow: 916-321-1264, @ryansabalow. The Bee’s Jessica Hice, Nashelly Chavez, Bill Lindelof, Phillip Reese and Brad Branan contributed to this story.

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