The water content of the Sierra Nevada snowpack in drought-stricken California was 136 percent of normal Wednesday when officials took the winter's first manual survey — an encouraging result after nearly no snow was found at the site in April.
The latest snow level is a good sign, "but that's it — it's a start," said Frank Gehrke, chief of the California Cooperative Snow Surveys Program for the Department of Water Resources.
After four years of drought, Gehrke plunged a measuring pole into a thick field of snow in the Central Sierra, which includes Lake Tahoe. His survey followed an electronic measurement last week that put the water content of the snowpack at 112 percent of normal. Even more snow has fallen since then.
The snowpack provides about 30 percent of California's water supply during the months when it melts and rushes through rivers and streams to fill reservoirs that remain critically low.
Last Jan. 1, the snowpack was a meager 45 percent of the historical average. On April 1, it had dropped to a record low of 5 percent.
Gehrke said snow must continue falling through April for him to feel confident the drought is easing.
"There's going to be those anxious moments when we start to get into a week, a week-and-a-half with no snow," he said.
A brewing El Nino system — a warming in the Pacific Ocean that alters weather worldwide — is expected to impact California and the rest of the nation in the coming months, according to a NASA report released Tuesday.
“It’s still early on the season and the drought’s not over yet,” explained Abby Figueroa of East Bay Municipal Utility District (EBMUD).
EBMUD’s reservoirs are half full, despite a rainy start to the season.
“What we really need to see are a couple more months like the one we just had,” Figueroa said. “With that kind of rain and snow, then we’ll definitely be in better shape with our reservoirs.”
El Nino's effects on California's drought are hard to predict, but Jet Propulsion Laboratory climatologist Bill Patzert said it should bring some relief. El Ninos in the early 1980s and late 1990s brought about twice as much rain as normal, he said.
The weather also caused mudslides, flooding and high surf in Southern California.
"The water story for much of the American West over most of the past decade has been dominated by punishing drought," Patzert said. "Now, we're preparing to see the flip-side of nature's water cycle — the arrival of steady, heavy rains and snowfall."
Forecasters say a light to moderate storm system is expected in Northern California early next week.