SACRAMENTO — And now, from our state water managers, comes this little stocking stuffer: Fears of a 2002 drought have been pretty well put to rest.
For those who haven't noticed, it was a wet and wild fall in California. Winter is just a day old, but the Sierra Nevada is frosted with nearly half the snow that normally piles up by the end of March.
The relentless lineup of storms hammering the mountain range has ski resorts humming and state hydrologists cautiously predicting a bountiful water year.
"We're off to a good start, that's for sure," said Maury Roos, California's chief hydrologist and a drought-tested veteran. "Certainly better than last year."
The picture is brightest in the northern Sierra, Roos said, where the snowpack is at 156% of average for this time of year. The central and southern Sierra also are well ahead of normal in snow accumulation, and two of the state's wettest months--January and February--are still to come.
Despite all the fluffy stuff, the water gurus--a famously cautious bunch--aren't relaxing quite yet. After all, they warn, an extended dry spell could quickly eat up today's surplus.
But even a serious falloff in rain and snowfall would, at most, make it merely a dry year, not a "critically dry year," Roos said.
"It's not in the bag yet. I don't want to give that impression," he said. "But it's looking pretty rosy at this point."
If the soggy trend continues, this year will mark a dramatic contrast with last winter, which coughed up a sparse snowfall that melted early in the Sierra Nevada, source of about half of California's water for cities and farms.
Last April 1, the traditional end of the rain and snow season, the snowpack was at 61% of its average level, the lowest such measurement since 1994. The meager total led the State Water Project to cut its water deliveries to farmers and municipal users by 60%.
The dry conditions also depleted the water supply in storage. The five major California reservoirs operated by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, for example, are at just 30% of capacity--down significantly from the 57% mark they were at a year ago.
"We're much lower, mainly because we've just come out of one of the driest years we'd had in a long time," said Louis Moore, a bureau spokesman.
The good news, Moore said, is that the reservoirs are filling up fast. For example, at Folsom Lake, east of Sacramento, storage jumped by 10,000 acre-feet in the six days ending Thursday. (That's enough to supply 10,000 families of five for about a year.)
Confirming that fact, state officials say a key index measuring Northern California rainfall is at 155% of normal for this time of year.
"Any way you look at it, we're off to a great start," said Bill Mork, climatologist with the Department of Water Resources.
So will it last? Mork, who in effect serves as California's top weatherman, can't say for sure. His short-term prediction is that a ridge of high pressure will push the storm track off to the north after Christmas, sparing California a damp New Year's.
"It should be nice and pleasant for the Rose Bowl Parade," Mork said.
Beyond that, long-range weather predicting is iffy at best, he said. National Weather Service forecasters take a stab at it, and they expect California to experience warmer than normal temperatures and drier than normal conditions in the coming months.
"But those long-range forecasts aren't much better than flipping a coin," Mork said. "What we do know is that if you drive over the [Sierra] summit right now, there's a wall of snow about seven feet tall on either side of you."
Ski resort operators confirm that report, with Mammoth Mountain and Squaw Valley USA registering a deeper base than they've seen in several seasons at this time of the year.
At Mammoth, spokeswoman Joani Lynch said storms that began arriving around Thanksgiving deposited enough snow to blanket all of the mountain's ski runs. And cold temperatures in December have kept the snow in good shape, she said.
At Squaw Valley, near Lake Tahoe, marketing director Eric Brandt said the snow is "super powdery, the kind that falls off your door when you slam it.
"I'm looking out my window right now and it's just dumping," Brandt said.
Snowpack refers not to snow depth, but to the snow's water content, critical to runoff that swells mountain streams and rivers and the reservoirs they supply.
Remote sensors scattered at about 100 locations throughout the Sierra record the weight of the snow, measure its water content and transmit that information via satellite to the water resources department in Sacramento.
There, a team of hydrologists make water supply predictions for California's farmers and municipal users.