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California snowpack could bring 5-year drought to its knees


    Frank Gehrke, chief of the California Cooperative Snow Surveys Program for the Department of Water Resources, crosses a snow covered meadow on Feb. 2 after conducting the second manual snow survey of the season at at Phillips Station near Echo Summit, Calif.

FRESNO, Calif. >> The massive snowdrifts in the Sierra Nevada could finally bring the California drought to its knees and keep skiers on the slopes long enough to celebrate the Fourth of July.

Winter snowfall on California’s 400-mile mountain range provides roughly one-third of the water used in the nation’s most populous state as the snow melts over the spring and summer and fills reservoirs supplying farmers and city dwellers.

The California Department of Water Resources will once again manually measure the snowpack on Wednesday, saying the state is on track for one of the wettest winters on record after five years of drought.

On Tuesday, electronic monitors showed the snowpack was at 186 percent of normal for this time of year.

Doug Carlson of the state agency says the winter’s historic snow and rainfall has not been seen in California for decades.

At the southern end of the Sierra Nevada — with the highest mountain peaks — more than double the normal amount of snow has piled up.

The deluge follows five years of drought, including two of the driest in the state’s recorded history.

In April 2015, Gov. Jerry Brown attended the monthly snowpack survey near Lake Tahoe, standing in a field that was barren of any measureable snow.

Brown later ordered residents to use less water at home — a first for California. In the state that leads the nation in producing fruits, vegetables and nuts, some farmers drew down wells to grow their crops; others left fields unplanted.

The bleak scenario began to ease last year. In recent weeks, heavy storms flooded some areas of California. For a time, officials feared Oroville Dam, the nation’s tallest, could burst. Tens of thousands of people were evacuated.

Flood damage statewide reached an estimated $1 billion, officials said.

The snow, however, has been good news for skiers.

At Mammoth Mountain, a popular destination in Southern California, more than 43 feet of snow has fallen. Resort spokeswoman Lauren Burke said the venue plans to stay open through Independence Day.

Farther north, Lake Tahoe is at its highest level in more than a decade and ski resorts are extending the season to the end of April.

“We’ve had days when we had to take a little extra time to dig out we’ve had so much snow,” said Marcie Bradley, a spokeswoman for Northstar California. “It’s been an incredible snow year.”

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