TRUCKEE, Calif. — At the Northstar Ski Resort, where a sugary layer of fresh snow gleamed like icing on a wedding cake, Owen Boran, 5, filled up on M&Ms after several trips down the slopes. “It was fun,” he said, flashing a smile of pure joy.
Owen’s family is one of thousands flocking to the Sierra Nevada mountains, which have gotten more snow in the last three months than in the previous four years. The snow, beyond reinvigorating the ski industry, is providing a glimmer of hope that California’s devastating drought might be coming to an end.
Water from melting mountain snow is critical to the state, providing at least 30 percent of its annual water supply. At this time last year, the mountain snowpack near Truckee, a two-hour drive northeast of Sacramento, was only two inches, a record low.
This year, however, the snowpack is significantly above normal, about 75 inches, and contains enough water to start raising California’s drained reservoirs, according to a survey taken Tuesday.
If an enormous El Niño weather pattern continues to churn out near-record precipitation, the state could start to recover from a drought that is entering its fifth year. But state water officials are cautioning that it will take more than a single winter to counteract the worst drought on record.
The snowpack, now at 130 percent of normal, would have to grow to 150 percent to end the drought, an unlikely development, officials say. While the amount of precipitation is above last year’s, “that’s not to say California’s long drought is over,” the state Department of Water Resources said last week.
“Most of the state’s major reservoirs still hold much less than their historical averages for early February,” the department said. “Californians are encouraged to continue their water conservation.” Only one of 12 state reservoirs, Folsom Lake, is at its normal February level. The rest are between 28 percent and 77 percent below normal.
The U.S. Drought Monitor, produced by the federal government and the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, indicated that the drought is still very serious.
At a meeting early this month, the State Water Resources Control Board voted to extend by six months California’s first-ever mandatory cuts in water use, which was slated to end in March. Although there is more snow, and residents met the goal of cutting water use by 25 percent, this is no time to stop conserving water, said board chair Felicia Marcus.
“I think it’s phenomenal the efforts Californians have made,” she said. But she added, “We’re only halfway through the rainy season and we don’t know what will happen. It’s just premature to say the drought is over.”
But at Northstar, the snow-draped Lake Tahoe resort where Owen skied with his parents and grandparents, the long dry spell was easy to forget.
Laughter echoed across the ski lodge. Company officials declined to give an official tally of how many guests have arrived since the resort opened for the season a week early in November, but an employee, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said the number of visitors more than tripled since last year.
Jim Larmore, senior director of mountain operations at the resort, said he’s confident that snowfall this season will exceed the amount needed to reverse the drought. “I live down near the Truckee River, and it’s really flowing right now” after years of appearing drained, he said. “Everybody’s happy. The town is happy. Our guests are happy. If I could talk to the animals, they would probably say they’re happy too.”
But in a state so dry that nearly a dozen municipalities are working on billions of dollars worth of projects to produce fresh drinking water — either from saltwater or wastewater — the fear of the drought remains strong.
A recent poll showed that most Californians are deeply worried that it could become a part of their future. That concern was reflected in comments by Owen’s grandparents, Angela Sowa and Dennis Facchino, who watched him scarf down chocolate between runs down the slopes.
The snow is “gorgeous, but we don’t have any hope that this is going to end the drought,” said Sowa, of Palo Alto. Facchino nodded in agreement.
When Gov. Jerry Brown (D) ordered the cut in water use inApril, he strongly encouraged homeowners to replace grass lawns with desert plants, ushering in a sea change in California culture.
The reductions fell hardest on urban water users, who were offered rebates to replace water-hogging lawns, toilets and dishwashers. Facchino said his family catches water from showers and use it to water indoor and other plants.
“You get Tuesday and Thursday to water plants” in Palo Alto, with water from the public utility, Facchino said. “You can’t water until 48 hours after it rains.” Spying neighbors often point authorities to rule-breakers.
Last fall, state officials focused on agriculture, which uses 80 percent of the state’s water. Farmers, who historically were allowed to siphon nearly unlimited amounts of water from rivers, had their water rights curtailed. Agricultural fields and orchards in the once-bountiful Central Valley shriveled.
But now, “there’s so much water sitting on that mountain . . . it’s a tremendous amount of water,” said Larmore of the Northstar resort. So far this year, he said, 277 inches of snow have fallen at Northstar.
Din Abdullah, a regular visitor from Oakland who rested near a fire pit between runs, agreed that this year is nothing like last year. “There were a lot more dirt holes then,” he said. “There were nine trails open but now there are like 18.”
Still, he said, this winter’s big snow is “just a drop in the bucket.”