It’s beginning to look a lot like ... an appropriately wet and sloppy Christmas.
The rain and wind that descended on the Sacramento area Monday is expected to continue intermittently through the holiday week, potentially snarling traffic and creating road hazards in the region.
What it won’t do is cure the drought.
All the rain and snow that has fallen in recent weeks might seem like the answer to California’s prayers. In fact, it’s been merely the average amount of precipitation the region is supposed to get this time of year, and that’s it. It just seems like a whole lot more, after four years of drought.
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“Average isn’t going to cut it for us,” Michelle Mead of the National Weather Service said Monday. “All you have to do is look at our reservoir situation. We’re down in the dumps.”
Drought update: Just average so far
Climate forecasters say California is facing a substantial “water deficit” that accumulated over the past four years. Even the torrential downpours that El Niño is expected to deliver starting in January will only make a modest difference in the long-term water outlook, according to forecasters.
“We would need a well-above average water year to see any drought relief,” said Mead, a warning coordination meteorologist in Sacramento.
So far, the season is struggling to reach average. The weather service’s rain gauges in the Northern Sierra Nevada stand at 85 percent of normal, and 93 percent in the Central Sierra, according to Mead. The snowpack was looking healthier: 98 percent of normal in the Northern Sierra and 90 percent in the Central Sierra.
Certainly this week’s rain and snow will boost those numbers, possibly to the average range. The Sacramento Valley was expected to get a half-inch to 2 inches of rain Monday and Tuesday, while the foothills would get as much as 6 inches. Another 1 to 2 feet of snow was expected at the 6,000-foot level, with as much as 3 feet on the peaks.
After a break Wednesday, Mead said, Christmas Eve travelers can expect “a pretty nasty storm.” The weather service forecast calls for up to a half-inch of rain in the valley and up to an inch and a half in the foothills. A few inches of snow will fall as low as 2,500 feet, and up to a foot at higher elevations.
But in California weather, the bad news often manages to crowd out the good, and this month’s weather is no exception.
Consider Folsom Lake, the primary fresh water source for a half-million suburban Sacramentans. It was drained to the lowest point in its 60-year history last month as part of a complicated and ultimately unsuccessful effort to provide more water for a species of salmon that’s been driven nearly to the point of extinction by the drought.
December’s rains have brought the lake level up by about 9 percent. But the lake is still a sorry sight. As of Monday it was filled to just 15 percent of capacity, or half the normal volume for this time of year, according to Department of Water Resources data.
Most forecasters say California probably will need twice the normal precipitation this winter to end the drought. Although the El Niño weather pattern is expected to be one of the strongest ever, forecasters say it probably won’t bring enough snow. An ample snowpack is key because that would provide California’s reservoirs and canals with melted runoff well into next spring and summer.
Road report: Flood, wind, mudslide warnings
Highway travel is projected to be up 1.4 percent this Christmas season, a sign of a healthier economy, according to the AAA Northern California forecast.
Highway and weather service officials are warning those travelers of potential road issues because of inclement weather, including high winds in open areas in the Sacramento Valley, potential flooding in low-lying areas and the threat of mudslides on mountain highways.
“Mudslides are a definite concern in the fire burn areas,” Caltrans spokesman Steve Nelson said on Monday. “We have had to close down Highway 50 and I-80 for mud or rockslides.”
Even without slides, travel could be difficult this week, especially in the mountains, where snow is expected to fall as low as the 2,500-foot elevation. That could make roads sloshy as low as Colfax on I-80 and Placerville on Highway 50.
Chains were required over both mountain passes, on I-80 and Highway 50, at mid-day Monday and are expected to be required intermittently all week. All drivers in the mountains should carry tire chains or traction devices if they do not have four-wheel drive with snow-rated tires, highway officials said. Caltrans road maintenance and cleaning crews are on 24/7 duty, and will be salting mountain roads to reduce icing and give vehicles better traction.
Caltrans warns that big rigs are susceptible to spin-outs, and that such incidents have required fully closing mountain roads for hours. With that in mind, highway officials ask drivers in the mountains to bring an emergency kit that includes a flashlight, water, a blanket and a change of clothes. Nelson of Caltrans said drivers should make sure their cellphone batteries are charged.
“It is always a possibility to get stuck sitting in traffic,” Nelson said.
For road information in real time, drivers can check the Caltrans traffic conditions map, at quickmap.dot.ca.gov, which provides information on all freeways, including road incidents, traffic jams and where chains are required.
Travelers can also check road conditions by calling 1-800-427-ROAD.
Crews play catch-up with leaves
City of Sacramento crews were keeping up with yard waste and leaf collection this fall – that is until the leaves started falling off the trees in greater numbers.
Erin Treadwell, a spokeswoman with the city’s Recycling and Solid Waste Division, said crews are picking up leaves from in front of homes every 15 to 17 days right now. Earlier in the fall, the city was running on a 10- to 14-day cycle.
“We hit a wall of leaves this week,” she said.
Treadwell said a storm last week appeared to dump a week’s worth of leaves in 48 hours. As an example of how busy crews have been since then, she said 1,300 tons of leaves were collected in the city’s southern neighborhoods last week. The previous week, crews scooped up 700 tons in the same area.
All of the city’s 14 “claws” are working this week, and Treadwell said that will likely remain the case until at least Thursday. She said crews made good progress on Monday, including faster-than-expected work in the city’s Land Park neighborhood, where most of the streets are lined with trees.
“We’re in the heaviest week of the year,” she said. “We’re playing catch-up.”