CA snow exceeds forecast, but too little too late

It's finally looking like ski season in California's Sierra Nevada, as a late winter storm exceeded forecasts by dumping at least 6 feet of snow at the highest elevations.

"It was one of the more significant storms of the winter season," said Jim Mathews, a National Weather Service meteorologist. "We've had very few storms this season that have created so much snow."

A winter storm warning for the region was lifted Thursday afternoon, with light snow showers in the forecast for the Sierra late Thursday and early Friday, before the storm moved out of the area, Mathews said.

The heavy snow drew three skiers to a remote area in the upper elevations of Placer County, where one was injured when he was caught in an avalanche, authorities said.

The skier was hospitalized after being taken down the side of a mountain in a basket dragged by a rescue team on skis, said Placer County sheriff's spokeswoman Dena Erwin.

It was believed the skier had suffered a broken leg, but Erwin did not know if he had suffered additional injuries.

The two other skiers were not hurt. Authorities did not release the names of the three, but described them as men in their 20s.

The skiers had "apparently" caused the avalanche accessing a back country area near Highway 89 where there is no avalanche control, Erwin said.

"This time of year it's a bad idea to go anywhere where there's no avalanche control," Erwin said.

On Interstate 80, the main highway between Northern California and Nevada, traffic was flowing without any delays Thursday evening, said Caltrans spokesman Mark Dinger.

"We had a very good day today," Dinger said. "There were no major incidents today. Traffic was very light."

Despite the heavy snowfall, California is far behind in amassing the amount needed to sustain water use in the arid state for the rest of the year. The state uses reservoirs and a system of aqueducts to deliver snowmelt to 25 million Californians who depend on it for all or part of their water.

Measurements on Thursday showed the water content of the snowpack at 34 percent of normal, the fourth-lowest reading since the 1940s, said Dave Rizzardo, chief of snow surveys for the Department of Water Resources. Last year at this time, the snowpack was 124 percent of normal and reached 165 percent by April 1.

"It's a nice change," Rizzardo said of the storm, "but the reality is we need a lot more."

The storm is bringing fresh powder to the ski resorts, but powdery snow lacks the moisture content that Rizzardo wanted to see. Snow in the state currently holds 8 inches of water, compared with 23 inches that would be normal by this date.

"The ski resorts are happy — it will be a nice powder day tomorrow. But we like the wet, cement stuff that really hurts you when you fall down," Rizzardo said. "Nothing personal against skiers."

The lack of water content and the unlikely prospects that enough storms will come to make up the deficit by April's melt has prompted officials to warn Central California farmers that they will receive only half of the water they requested this growing season.

The snowfall, part of a blast from the Gulf of Alaska, fell heaviest in the Northern Sierra, with smaller readings as far south as Yosemite National Park, where chains were required.

"We're running out of time," Rizzardo said. "We have our three wettest months behind us."

Avalanche danger in the Lake Tahoe area was down slightly Thursday, but warnings still exist due to high winds, new snow and a weak snowpack.

In California, weather forecasters say a sunny weekend should make for ideal skiing conditions.

"Skiers can go have all of the fun they want on the weekend. It worked out perfectly," said weather forecaster Powell. "It should be plowed out and there should be plenty of fresh powder."

As storms moved in from the west, the Colorado Department of Transportation closed the eastbound lanes of Interstate 70 near Glenwood Springs because of accidents as a snowstorm moves into Colorado. Up to 6 inches of snow had fallen by Thursday afternoon in northwestern Colorado, and up to 18 inches was expected to accumulate in some areas by Friday.

Forecasters were predicting 2 to 4 inches of snow throughout Thursday east of the Continental Divide. Farther east, an overnight winter storm dumped nearly a foot of snow in parts of upstate New York, a rare wallop in a season that's been unusually snowless.

More than half a foot of snow also fell across parts of southern Maine by midday, with the National Weather Service calling for accumulations of 5 to 15 inches by the time storm clears out late Thursday.

As in California, the snow to the northeast was a welcome sign for some students who got a snow day and for snow plow drivers happy to get back to work on Thursday.