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Do holiday storms offer glimmer of hope for end of drought?

Winter driving tips to navigate Sierra roadways

Caltrans shares important tips for motorists heading to higher elevations this winter. The video also introduced drivers to Caltrans' new method of identifying chain installers who have been permitted and trained by Caltrans. Public Information Of
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Caltrans shares important tips for motorists heading to higher elevations this winter. The video also introduced drivers to Caltrans' new method of identifying chain installers who have been permitted and trained by Caltrans. Public Information Of

A cold winter storm swept into the region on Friday and early Saturday, bringing low snow levels and slippery roads on one of the busiest holiday travel periods of the year.

While the storm made for dangerous road travel and plenty of airport delays, the wet, snowy weather, following a succession of storms to start the rainy season, was more welcome news as California concludes its fifth consecutive year of drought.

“At this point, we’re cautiously optimistic,” said Jeanine Jones, interstate resources manager for the state Department of Water Resources. “We’re in the fingers-crossed, wait-and-see mode.”

Experts like Jones aren’t ready to declare the drought over in spite of one of the more promising starts to California’s wet season in years. The reason? The state’s water-supply picture is very much a mixed bag at this point, and it’s still early in the state’s brief rainy season to point to any sort of trend. Most of the precipitation that falls in California falls in January and February.

“We’re just coming to the end of December now, so you don’t want to the bet the ranch on anything at this stage,” Jones said.

While the state’s reservoirs have filled to near average levels for this time of year and have twice as much water in them as they did at this time last year, other critical sources of water remain in worse shape.

Many of the state’s most important groundwater basins, which provide a vital source of water for farms and cities in drought years, remain critically overdrafted following years of rampant pumping, Jones said.

“That takes longer to recover,” she said.

The state’s snow-water content in the Sierra Nevada also was at just 61 percent of average on Friday. An ample Sierra snowpack is crucial to ending the drought, because the vast amount of snow that falls in California’s high country melts and is channeled down to the state’s water supply network, which is built around capturing it for use through the hot, dry months.

All those factors considered, the U.S. Drought Monitor on Thursday bumped up its percentage of California no longer in a drought to 30 percent, a slight increase from the week before.

The drought-free areas are largely along the North Coast and the northwestern corner of the state. The bottom half of the state still remains under severe or exceptional drought conditions.

The hope is that the weekend’s storm could help put a small dent in the snow-water deficit, however much it might have caused headaches for holiday travelers.

Snowfall accumulation Friday was estimated to reach about 6 inches at the 4,000-foot level in the Sierra. At higher elevations such as Donner Pass and Echo Summit, up to 2 feet of snow was expected to accumulate, slowing holiday traffic. Chains were required over both summits on Friday. The California Department of Transportation briefly closed Highway 50 Friday morning after a sport-utility vehicle slid off the road and got tangled in trees on a steep embankment.

Motorists heading north on Interstate 5 saw up to 2 inches fall at around 2,000 feet as they started the climb out of the Sacramento Valley north of Redding, according to the National Weather Service. A foot or more was expected to fall in the higher elevations.

The holiday storm affected air travel as well on Thursday and Friday. Long weather-related delays were reported at California airports, including Sacramento International, where more than half of flights were taking off late, and some flights were delayed more than two hours.

Officials recommend travelers check their flight schedules for changes before coming to an airport. With heavy holiday crowds, officials say fliers should arrive two hours before takeoff in order to assure they are checked in and go through federal security checkpoints with ample time to catch their flight.

Airports are expected to be crowded throughout the holiday season through early January.

Travis Wilson, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Sacramento, said that by Saturday morning he expects most of the storm to have passed, though with cold weather moving into Northern California, it’s possible some lower-elevation cities in the region, such as Grass Valley, could have a dusting of snow in the morning.

With cold temperatures, the snow may stick around until Sunday for a white Christmas morning.

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

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