PHILLIPS STATION, Calif. – Surveyors plunged a pole into the Sierra Nevada snowpack on Tuesday and took the first manual measurement of the wet season, finding water content was about half of normal as California flirts with a possible sixth year of drought.
Surveyors took the reading at 6,000 feet near Lake Tahoe as major cold and windy storms were expected to dump four to five feet of snow through Thursday in areas above 4,500 feet in Northern and Central California, while mountain areas below that could get two to three feet, forecasters said.
The storms were expected to boost the snowpack that provides roughly a third of California's water in normal years for drinking, farming and wildlife when it melts in warm, dry months.
What surveyors find between now and April 1 will guide state water officials in managing the water supply of the nation's most populous, agriculture-rich state.
Electronic monitors at elevations throughout the Sierra in late December showed the overall snowpack with 72 percent water content.
At Tuesday's reading at Phillips Station, the water content measured at 53 percent of normal, said Frank Gehrke, chief snow surveyor at the state Department of Water Resources.
Despite the lower water-content level, he called it a good start because higher elevations were doing better. He also took the survey at an elevation below the snowline for December's storms.
A year ago, the snowpack was slightly above normal levels, but Gehrke recalled that the rain and snow essentially stopped in February and March, leaving the state at a nearly average year for precipitation on April 1.
"This year, it looks like (storms are) lined up off the coast and will continue to increase the snowpack," Gehrke said as he stood on about three feet of snow.
Elsewhere, rain was expected starting Tuesday afternoon throughout the San Francisco Bay Area. Winter storm advisories will go into effect from 4 a.m. Wednesday until 4 a.m. Thursday, said Bob Benjamin, a National Weather Service forecaster.
Avalanche alerts were issued for high elevations and flooding was possible in the foothills.
A second, stronger system was expected to hit the region over the weekend, bringing the possibility of as much as five additional feet of snow in the Sierra Nevada.
"It looks like it's going to be wet all week, and possibly into next week," Benjamin said.
Southern California, which has remained relatively dry in recent months, was expected to see light showers this week, forecasters said.
At the height of the drought in 2015, snowpack surveyors stood on a dirt patch for the April 1 measurement at Phillips Station, finding the least snow since records had been taken in 1950.
Gov. Jerry Brown responded by ordering residents statewide to use 25 percent less water, letting lawns turn brown — or tearing them out — and flushing toilets less often.
The drought eased last year and so did regulations.
In February, the state water board will again consider the conditions and decide whether the state needs to take a stronger stand on conservation.
"If the skies dry up, we'll be looking at something different," board chair Felicia Marcus said. "We're playing this one moment to moment."
This winter started strong. More rain fell in October than in the same month over the past three decades, raising the state's major reservoirs in Northern California along with hopes that the drought would soon end.
Doug Carlson, a spokesman for the state's Department of Water Resources, said it is too early to predict if the wet weather will end the drought.
"It could change immediately and stop snowing and raining," he said.