An unwelcome three-week winter dry spell left the California snowpack at just 83 percent of average, a setback for the state as it tries to break out of record drought, state snow surveyors found Tuesday.

In an icy meadow in California's central Sierra Nevada, state surveyor Frank Gehrke plunged poles into snowbanks, measuring how much snow was lost to a February with record warm temperatures and little rain.

Californians depend on snowfall for a third of their water and have hoped this year's strong El Nino system would deliver heavy snow and rain.

After a wet December and January, however, sunshine and blue skies returned, bringing temperatures in the 90s to Southern California last month.

The year had a "very good start, and then ... February just did not come through,' Gehrke said.

Gehrke's measuring site showed snowpack at 105 percent of average, compared to 130 percent at the same spot the month before.

California last year marked its driest four-year spell on record, leading Gov. Jerry Brown last April to order mandatory 25 percent water conservation for cities and towns. The conservation order remains in effect.

Officials say bringing the state out of drought would require snowpack at 150 percent of average by April 1.

December, January and February typically are the wettest months in California. However, late spring storm patterns dubbed "March Miracles" helped ease dry spells in 1991 and 1995, state Department of Water Resources officials noted.

Californians can still hope for such a miracle this week, when changing weather patterns promise to send a series of storms over the state, the National Weather Service said.

Forecasters expect as much as 7 inches of rain in Northern California in the coming days and heavy snow in the mountains.