Could new storms be California’s ‘March Miracle’?

Wind and rain coming to Sacramento Saturday

Meteorologist Bill Rasch talks about this weekend's storm and how to prepare. Saturday's rain is expected to usher in a series of storms that will improve the state's water outlook.
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Meteorologist Bill Rasch talks about this weekend's storm and how to prepare. Saturday's rain is expected to usher in a series of storms that will improve the state's water outlook.

Was this the start of California’s “March Miracle”?

Rain and thunder hit the Sacramento area Friday afternoon, touching off a weekend that’s expected to be full of stormy weather. The precipitation ended a lengthy dry spell and rekindled hopes that El Niño could put a meaningful dent in the drought.

Forecasters said rain was expected to fall through the evening, intensify Saturday and continue through Sunday and Monday. The storm could bring as much as 3 feet of snow to portions of the Sierra Nevada. A second heavy storm system is likely to move into the region late Wednesday or early Thursday.

“What we’re expecting out of this is ... very heavy rainfall, damaging winds and heavy mountain snowfall,” said Louis Uccellini, director of the National Weather Service, in a conference call with reporters. “These storms and their intensities are consistent with the El Niño pattern. They tend to come in episodes.”

The return of wet weather follows the disappointment of February, when Sacramento received less than an inch of rain and a portion of the once-promising Sierra snowpack had melted away. Climate experts said the storms will get California back on track toward easing the drought, but a complete cure this winter is unlikely.

“It’s definitely going to help, but I don’t know that you’re going to be able to say it’s the slam-dunk thing that we needed,” said Michael Anderson, the Department of Water Resources’ state climatologist. “We’ve still got some pretty deep holes.”

Typically, the department says, California’s significant droughts have ended when precipitation hit 150 percent of average. As of Friday morning, overall rainfall was 101 percent of average for this time of year and water content in the Sierra snowpack had fallen to 79 percent of average. Even a drenching March probably will not be enough to end the drought.

“We’re a little late for miracles,” said Bill Patzert, a climate expert at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena.

Patzert said it was probably unrealistic to expect one wet winter to obliterate what is considered the worst drought in recorded California history. “There is never a quick fix for a drought,” he said.

The rains started in earnest around midday Friday, paused for a few hours, then resumed with vigor late in the afternoon. A much as a half-inch had fallen in portions of Sacramento, and another quarter-inch or so was expected overnight.

Forecasters said Saturday would be comparatively warm, and the precipitation would fall as rain at elevations as high as 7,000 feet in the Sierra. A cold front is expected to roll in late Saturday or early Sunday, bringing snow as low as 3,500 feet.

The snowpack is critical to California’s chances of easing the drought. An ample amount of snow can provide 30 percent of the state’s water supply in spring and summer.

Considerably less rain was expected in Southern California, which has remained relatively dry this winter. El Niño typically delivers the bulk of its California precipitation to the south state.

Forecasters warned this weekend’s storms could bring gusting winds, falling trees, flash floods and other problems, but they said overall the storms should not be particularly destructive. As the rainfall accumulates, however, the second set of storms forecast for next week could lead to worrisome levels in some rivers and streams.

“Let’s call it a manageable March miracle,” said Andy Morin, with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s California Nevada River Forecast Center. “We’re really hoping in a manageable way to add to these reservoirs and really start putting the hurt on the drought.”

As the second round of storms rolls in, “those effects can get cumulative, and we could start to have increasing amounts of trouble,” he said.

Flood safety regulators weren’t taking any chances. The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, which operates Folsom Lake, said it has begun ramping up releases from the reservoir to prepare for incoming flows. While the reservoir is only 62 percent full, and some Sacramento water-agency officials have criticized the bureau for releasing water for flood safety, the bureau said it has to maintain ample empty space to guard against big storms.

The lake is expected to receive 282,000 acre-feet of water between now and March 14, said agency spokesman Shane Hunt. The reservoir’s total capacity is 977,000 acre-feet.

“We’re looking at a forecast showing quite a bit of rain and snow,” Hunt said. “The reservoir is pretty full given where we’re at for the season.” The lake is holding 10 percent more water than average for early March.

The wintry weather was threatening to scramble weekend recreation plans. One big outdoor event was moved inside. The Life in Color paint-spraying extravaganza Saturday afternoon was moved from Bonney Field to the indoor Pavilion. But the Donut Dash in Sacramento’s Land Park was expected to go on as planned, along with the Way Too Cool 50K Endurance Run east of Auburn.

Friday marked the first true rainfall in Sacramento in 14 days, a dry patch that prompted some water officials to worry that El Niño had run its course. However, experts noted that El Niño is often accompanied by lengthy stretches without rain, including a 17-day lull in 1998 and 14 days in 1983. Those were two of the heaviest El Niño winters on record.

“El Niño remains strong and continues to influence the temperatures and precipitation pattern across the West,” Uccellini said.

During recent winter storms, many Sacramentans had the same thought: How can I save some of that rain for later? Holding onto that rain can recharge soil moisture, cut down on outside water use and create lasting savings on irrigation. Which metho

Chris Lopez of Sacramento-based shows how to slow, spread and sink more rainwater into your garden and help plants survive drought.

Dale Kasler: 916-321-1066, @dakasler The Bee’s Bill Lindelof contributed to this report.