Sierra Snow

A worker walks past heavy snowfall on the deck of the lodge at Big Springs on Monday, Dec. 21, 2015, in Truckee, Calif. (Northstar California Resort)

Bettina Boxall, Frank Shyong and Joseph Serna
December 22, 2015

A series of powerful snowstorms in the Sierra Nevada has resulted in a small milestone in drought-stricken California: The snowpack is now higher than average for this time of year.

The storms, which are likely to continue into Friday, have fattened the mountain snowpack to levels California hasn’t seen for two years, said Steve Nemeth, water supply forecaster for the state Department of Water Resources.

The announcement was welcome news to a state that has struggled with extremely dry conditions for more than four years. However, experts were quick to point out that California’s drought is far from over.

Statewide, the snowpack is 111% of average for the date. In the northern Sierra, it is 116% of the norm; in the central Sierra, 121% of average and in the southern Sierra, 85% of the norm.

Last year at this time, the statewide snowpack was little more than half the average, setting the tone for a dismal winter of bare Sierra slopes. Snow in these areas is a key source of water for the state.

“We are above average and that’s a very good thing,” Nemeth said, adding a note of caution. “We’ve been fooled before on above-average Decembers” with disappointing sequels.
Snowpack above average

When it comes to snowpack, the critical date is still months away. April 1 is when snowpack reaches its peak, and in a typical year that snow provides Californians with roughly a third of their water supply.

The snow comes from a series of cold storm systems that originated in the Gulf of Alaska, according to Eric Kurth, meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Sacramento.

Snowfall began earlier this year — in November — and covered a wider area than usual, instead of appearing at just higher elevations.

“We’ve got snowstorms on top of other snowstorms, which has helped accumulate snowpack,” Kurth said.
New snow

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