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Winter Storm Dramatically Increases Sierra Snow Pack

SAN FRANCISCO (CBS SF) -- State water officials called the latest snow pack survey "very encouraging" Monday after a winter storm front dumped up to eight feet of snow in the higher elevations of the Sierra.

California water official Frank Gehrke measured 41.1 inches of snow Monday at Phillips Station in the Sierra, a dramatic leap from measurements taken in the same meadow just a month ago.

Gehrke said the same meadow had just 7 percent of its usual snowfall a couple of weeks ago. The big winter storm last week has brought that up to 39 percent.

"So we've seen a very substantial, very significant increase not only at this local (Phillips Station) but pretty much Sierra wide," Gehrke said. "The storm basically started late Wednesday and kept going on into Sunday. it represents a doubling, tripling, quadrupling of water content in many locations. It's a very promising start to March."

"It's a much rosier, happier picture than a week ago."

The storm also brought parts of California more rain in hours than they received during all of February, typically one of the wettest months of the year.

In Southern California, the storm brought what was only the second significant rainfall of the past year to some areas, temporarily prompting new evacuations as a precaution after rains earlier this year triggered deadly mudslides.

Most importantly, it brought copious snow to the Sierra. Runoff from melted snow through the spring historically supplies Californians with one-third of their water, although scientists say climate change is altering that.

Before the storm, California had accumulated less than a quarter of its normal snowpack for the year. It would take six more storms to bring the state up to its normal winter precipitation by April. The odds of that happening are about one-in-50, the National Weather Service cautioned.

California emerged only last year from a historic five-year drought that forced mandatory water conservation for cities and towns, dried wells, and killed millions of trees in a devastating period for wildlife.

Near-record rain last year snapped the drought, only to have this winter's rainy season land as a dud. By February, nearly half the state — all of it in Southern California, home to more than half of residents — was back in drought, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor.

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