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California snowpack far above average amid January storms, but a lot more is needed

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A series of atmospheric river storms brought California heavy rains and an above-average snowpack across the Sierra Nevada, but experts say the state still needs many more storms to begin to emerge from drought.

Snowpack across the Sierra Nevada now measures 174% of average for this time of year. But there are still three months left in the snow season, and the snow that has fallen to date remains just 64% of the April 1 average.

“It’s definitely a very exciting start to the year and a very promising start to the year. But we just need the storm train to keep coming through,” said Andrew Schwartz, the lead scientist at UC Berkeley’s Central Sierra Snow Laboratory.

Storms swept in from the Pacific last week, bringing torrential rains and triggering flooding in the Central Valley and other areas. The biggest of the storms, on Friday and Saturday, was a large and warm atmospheric river, called a Pineapple Express, which dumped rain and snow across the mountains.

Nearly 6 feet of snow had piled up as of Tuesday at the snow laboratory at Donner Pass, and Schwartz said the next storm is expected to bring 2 to 3 feet more snow on Wednesday and Thursday.

Still, California’s largest reservoirs remain very low after the state’s driest three years on record.

“Realistically, we’re looking at needing several above-average years to come out of the drought,” Schwartz said.

“We’re so far into drought that we’re really going to need those multiple years to help pull us out at this point,” he said. “We still need to keep up with our water restrictions and just keep our fingers crossed that the storm cycle continues.”

State water officials were holding their first manual snow survey of the year on Tuesday at the Phillips Station snow course, one of more than 260 sites across the Sierra Nevada where the state tracks the snowpack.

Last December, a record-breaking 17 feet and 10 inches of snow fell at the snow lab, but then the snow stopped — and the state saw a record-dry January-March. “We actually had a better snowpack last year than we do right now,” Schwartz said.

“But unfortunately, that January through March period really dried us out and resulted in below-average precipitation.”

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