The National Weather Service issued a winter storm warning for parts of the Sierra Nevada in Central California, near Yosemite National Park, saying that as much as five feet of snow could accumulate at the highest elevations.
More rain is in the forecast across the state during most of the first week of the new year.
Water experts are normally circumspect when trying to explain the impact of a single atmospheric river on the state’s current drought, which began in 2020. But they have a glimmer of hope as a succession of storms are in the forecast.
“The whole weather outcome in parts of the West hinges on these atmospheric rivers,” said Marty Ralph, the director of the Center for Western Weather and Water Extremes with the Scripps Institution of Oceanography. The storm, he added, “is looking like a potent contributor to busting the drought.”
Karla Nemeth, the director of the California Department of Water Resources, the agency that manages the Golden State’s most precious resource, said that California must toe a fine line during intense winter storms. On one hand, the state desperately needs winter rain and snow to replenish water supplies before the annual dry spell that often persists from spring through fall.
But climate change has also intensified weather extremes in the West, and long bouts of heavy rain can cause devastating flooding or mudslides in areas that have recently burned. Warm storms in particular could melt snow prematurely and send a torrent of water down mountains and into already saturated cities.
“This is kind of a Goldilocks situation,” Ms. Nemeth said. “We’re cautiously optimistic.”
On California’s ski slopes, the unusually heavy snowfall was a welcome gift. Mammoth Mountain, a resort on the border of Yosemite National Park, expected to see several feet of snow on Saturday, with more snowfall expected through mid-January, said Lauren Burke, the resort’s director of communications.
The resort had already benefited from heavy snowfall this winter, including 10 to 15 feet of snow in the past month alone, Ms. Burke said. By midday Saturday, the resort was recording 90 to 131 inches of snow at its base depth, among the deepest in the country, according to data from On The Snow, which tracks snow cover at resorts nationwide.