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Snow for Christmas?

Amanda Fehd
Dan Thrift / Tahoe Daily Tribune/ Pete Tittl, visiting from Bakersfield, surveys the conditions before heading to his car Thursday afternoon at the Village Center. Snow could be falling by Sunday night, forecasters say.
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The official start of winter Wednesday arrived in the Sierra Nevada with drenching rain, mudslides, flood warnings and temperatures in the upper 40s.

Now, another slightly colder storm is expected to arrive by Sunday night, bringing a snow level of 7,000 feet, but rain at lake level.

“It will have more of an effect on travel over the passes than these recent storms,” said Ray Collins, meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Reno.

Lower snow levels will be good news for ski resorts. Some resorts reported rain from top to bottom Thursday.

“We’re remaining optimistic,” said Rachael Woods, spokeswoman for Alpine Meadows. “We’re definitely hoping for some winter weather.”

Ski resorts are still expecting large crowds over the next two weeks. Hotels and lodges around Alpine Meadows are sold out for the coming holiday weekend.

In October, government forecasters were predicting this winter might bring warm storms from the Pacific, a phenomenon termed a “Pineapple Express.”

But these storms, while warm and from Hawaii, are not exactly pineapples, said Jim Mathews, a weather service meteorologist from Sacramento. In fact, climatologists are now expecting a normal winter with average snowfall, he said.

That could mean relief for weather watchers. A flash flood watch for the Sierra was issued Wednesday and then downgraded to a flood advisory by Thursday as rivers and streams ran swifter and higher than normal.

Small mudslides were reported on Kingsbury Grade on Wednesday night and Thursday afternoon.

The area was saved from heavier runoff by the lack of a deep snowpack, which melts under warm precipitation.

“It could have been scarier if we had more snow at lower elevations and the storm lasted longer,” said Tahoe weather historian and author Mark McLaughlin.

While the skimpy lower elevation snowpack may have saved the area from a flood, the bad news is “the little we had is at risk,” said McLaughlin.

“It will hurt, there’s no doubt about it,” he said of the impact the weather will have on ski resorts and local businesses.

But it’s too early to call the entire winter a loss over the early warm storms, said McLaughlin.

“It’s so early in the game, it is premature,” he said.

The extra precipitation means good news for those downstream on the Truckee River who depend on Lake Tahoe for water. The region came out of a years-long drought this year.

Lake Tahoe is almost 2 feet higher than it was at this time last year. It has 166,000 acre-feet of stored water right now, according to hydrologist Gary Barbato at the weather service. Last year, it had zero stored water because the lake level was below the rim of the dam in Tahoe City.

Acre feet are the way reservoir managers measure how much water they have.

There’s still a long way to go to recover Lake Tahoe’s historical water storage, which averages 350,000 acre feet in December.

– David Bunker from the Sierra Sun newspaper in Truckee contributed to this report


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