Rain, snow and hail pound Northern California at end of bone-dry February

Watch hail blanket the Capitol, Downtown Sacramento

An afternoon hailstorm left an icy blanket all over Sacramento on Feb. 26.
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An afternoon hailstorm left an icy blanket all over Sacramento on Feb. 26.

Finally, rain. And snow. Some hail, even.

Plus there's more to come.

A storm doused Northern California on Monday, ending Sacramento's month-plus dry spell and setting the table for a heavy pounding that could dump up to 4 feet of snow on the Sierra Nevada range later this week.

After a pause in the weather at mid-day, Sacramento was pelted with hail during a freakish afternoon thunderstorm. Some residents thought the city was blanketed with snow; the Fire Department tweeted that a snow pile caused a traffic tie-up near West El Camino Avenue.

Weather forecasters said it was an easy mistake to make. "It certainly looked snow-like," said the National Weather Service's Eric Kurth, insisting that what fell was hail. Some of it was nearly as wide as a dime, he added.

An afternoon hailstorm left an icy layer on Downtown Sacramento streets on Feb. 26.

Even with another storm set to begin Wednesday, the long-overdue precipitation probably won't be nearly enough to overcome a winter that's been so bone dry that it's made Californians increasingly anxious about about a recurrence of the drought.

"We've dug a pretty deep hole," said Michael Anderson, the state's climatologist.

Still, the return of meaningful precipitation was welcome news. After seeing a few drops last week, Sacramento got its first measurable rainfall Monday since Jan. 25. Snow fell at elevations as low as 1,500 feet, bringing at least once school cancellation – the Pleasant Ridge Union School District in Nevada City – and chain controls on Highway 50 east of Placerville, Interstate 80 east of Applegate and Highway 88 east of Pioneer.

Hail blanketed Sacramento in an icy slush during a Feb. 26 storm.

The storm also disrupted electrical service throughout Northern California. SMUD and PG&E reported scattered power outages, with 1,400 PG&E customers losing power in the Olivehurst area of Yuba County and 2,400 in the Magalia area of Butte County.

Craig Shoemaker of the National Weather Service said portions of the Sierra were expected to receive more than a foot of snow by late Monday. The service said Nevada City, at 3,000 above sea level, got 7 inches of snow early on.

More than a half-inch of rain dropped in Sacramento by afternoon, and the Sacramento Valley was expecting three-quarters of an inch by nightfall.

Monday's weather was small potatoes compared to what will hit the region late Wednesday.

Mountain passes are expected to see two to three feet of snow Wednesday night through Saturday morning, and 8,300-foot Ebbets Pass should see 3 to 4 feet as March comes roaring in like a lion. In the Sacramento Valley, one to three inches of rain is forecast.

A blanket of snow covered much of the Sierra, including Grass Valley and Nevada City, on Feb. 26 during a winter storm.

Forecasters cautioned that this week's storms, while significant, won't be enough to cure what has been an extremely dry winter.

"It's looking like normal stuff; we're not looking at monumental amounts of rain," said Jan Null of Golden Gate Weather Services, a private forecasting firm in the Bay Area. "To even be thinking about getting to normal, is too far out there."

Monday's rain kept Sacramento out of record territory. Only once in the past 53 years, in 1995, has the city received less than 0.2 inches of rain in February. Sacramento was on track to get completely rainless until Monday, when 0.54 inches had fallen by late afternoon.

Nonetheless, it's still shaping up as a fairly dismal month. well short of the 3.7 inches expected in a normal February.

A similar situation is unfolding in the mountains, where a healthy snowpack is needed to replenish California's reservoirs in the summer and is considered critical to the state's annual water supply.

Heading into Monday, the snowpack was at 22 percent of average and was on par with the drought years of 2014 and 2015. Daniel Swain, a climatologist at UCLA, said the latest storms will improve the snowpack but won't erase the considerable deficit that's built up over the past few months.

"It'll be a nice white snowpack by later in the week," Swain said. But, "This week alone isn't going to cut it."

What broke the dry spell? Anderson said a persistent high-pressure system over the Pacific moved aside, which "opened the door for these storms to come down.

"There's plenty of cold air in place, so that'll be great," Anderson said. "A lot of this will come in as snow."

Both of this week’s systems originated in the Gulf of Alaska and are considerably colder than most that came through California in the 2017 water year, allowing more snow to accumulate in the mountains and at lower elevations. Heading into Monday, the state Department of Water Resources' 8-station index, which measures rain and snow levels in the northern Sierra, was at just 57 percent of normal. By week's end, it could top 70 percent.

“(This week) is actually going to change the idea of us having this record dry February we were talking about earlier,” Shoemaker said. “It just takes a couple of big storms to change way things are going.”

Swain, however, said it's far from certain that the wet weather will continue past this week.

"There's no clear sign that it's going to be extremely wet," the UCLA climatologist said. "The forecast doesn't call for us to get a 'March Miracle.'"

Sacramento was pummeled with a fast and furious hailstorm starting at about 2 pm on Monday, Feb. 26.

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