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Snowpack looks good, but dry January looms
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ECHO SUMMIT  (AP) — A snowy December that kept Sierra ski resorts busy also had California's water managers hopeful Wednesday at the start of a monthly snow-measuring ritual that determines everything from types of crops planted to municipal water allocations.

Officials with the Department of Water Resources measured more than 4 feet of accumulation near Echo Summit in El Dorado County on Wednesday, which is about normal for this time of year, said Frank Gehrke, head of California's cooperative snow survey program.

On this date last year there was only 0.14 inches of snow.

"You can see it's a big, big difference. It's a good start to the year," Gehrke said. "We're keeping our fingers crossed that we keep getting storm activity into April."

California's Sierra Nevada snowpack provides about one-third of the water used in the state as it melts to fill reservoirs and rivers and replenish aquifers. The current depth is about half of what normally falls during the season, which ends April 1.

Electronic readings show the water content of the snow ranging from 131 percent of average in the southern Sierra to 133 percent in the north.

Based on current conditions, the DWR estimates it will deliver 40 percent of the 4 million acre-feet of water requested through the State Water Project, which supplies water to 25 million Californians and a million acres of farmland.

Gehrke took measurements at several sites between 6,500 feet and 7,600 feet in elevation that drain into the American River. The snow depth ranged from 48.6 inches to 56 inches. The location has proven over time to be an accurate indicator for the region, he said.

The heavy snowpack came from a series of tropical storms that flowed over the region last month, but weather forecasters warn that early January doesn't look nearly as sodden.

"It looks like a fairly dry and mild forecast. There are a few systems on the horizon, but not a lot of moisture associated with them," said Drew Peterson, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Sacramento.

Sacramento and the northern Sierra Nevada mountain range have experienced 165 percent of the normal precipitation so far this rainy season, Peterson said. He expects the percentage will fall during the next few weeks of drier weather.

The state's snowpack was boosted in December by a series of "atmospheric river" storms that occur when a funnel of moisture from the tropics collides with energy heading south from the polar regions, Peterson said.

"We maybe get one of those a year, and the one we got was pretty significant," he said.

The warmer storms meant higher snow levels, but water researchers say that because rain saturated the ground at lower elevations, there likely will be more runoff this spring.

"We're off to a good start," said Randall Osterhuber, a researcher with the UC Berkeley Snow Lab near Donner Pass.

Thanks to the storms, ski resorts at Squaw Valley and Alpine Meadows saw their second-snowiest Christmas since record keeping began in 1970, said spokeswoman Jenny Kendrick.

The two-day storm that hit on Christmas dumped 29 inches of snow at Squaw Valley and 25 inches at Alpine.

For the month of December, Squaw Valley recorded 152 inches of snow for a total of 250 so far this winter, and Alpine recorded 142 to bring its total for the season to 241 inches. Kendrick said the totals are just 5 inches less than the resorts enjoyed in the record-setting 2010-2011 snow season.

"It's looking really good here," Kendrick said.