The much-welcomed storms that hit California this week and over the past month increased the Sierra Nevada snowpack, a critical source of water for cities and farms.
But they didn't end the drought, experts say. They simply improved a disastrous situation to dismal.
On Tuesday, surveyors for the state Department of Water Resources reported the snowpack is 32 percent of average -- the lowest level on April 1 since 1988, when Sierra Nevada snows were at 29 percent of normal. That was the second year of California's last major drought, which lasted five years.
But Tuesday's total is significantly better than two months ago, when the snowpack was only 14 percent of normal, after 2013 became the driest year in California's recorded history.
"We're out of the driest-on-record situation, but it's still very low," said Frank Gehrke, chief of snow surveys for the state Department of Water Resources.
The storms also have helped extend the ski season and temporarily reduce the risk of wildfires.
"The recent snow has helped," Gehrke said. "We've had a couple of good storms that put down 2 or 3 feet of snow. But instead of getting six or eight of those this winter, we've only had two or three. And that's the big difference."
Experts note that because all of 2013 and the first two months of this year were so dry, California remains in a deep deficit, precipitation-wise.
Even though there was fresh powder Tuesday on Sierra peaks, chain controls on vehicles on mountain highways, and even some snow in the Bay Area -- a dusting on Skyline Boulevard in San Mateo County and atop Mount Diablo, for example -- San Jose has had only 5.74 inches of rain since July 1. That's 43 percent of normal.
Similarly, Oakland is at 47 percent of normal, with 8.85 inches, and San Francisco is at 52 percent of normal with 11.13 inches. Parts of the Central Valley are in worse shape. Rainfall in Fresno is at 41 percent of normal, Bakersfield 33 percent. Los Angeles is at 42 percent.
"Any rainfall is welcome and helps, but we're way behind," said Bob Benjamin, a forecaster with the National Weather Service. "We'd have to get more than almost 8 inches of rain to bring us up to normal."
Tuesday's rain, by late afternoon, had brought less than half an inch to San Francisco, Oakland, Walnut Creek, San Jose and other Bay Area cities.
Meanwhile, major reservoirs around the state became fuller because of the March storms. But they were so low after three below-normal years that they are still not at healthy levels. Lake Shasta is 48 percent full, Lake Oroville 49 percent full and Folsom Reservoir 45 percent full.
On Tuesday, farm groups said the meager snowpack and rainfall this year will mean higher food prices, layoffs in rural counties and thousands of acres of fallowed land this summer in the Central Valley. They called for more money to build dams and reservoirs, as well as the relaxation of environmental rules that can limit pumping to protect endangered salmon and other fish.
"Today's announcement that California's snowpack is a mere 32 percent of normal is continued bad news for farmers throughout California that grow the food consumers find at the store," said Mike Wade, executive director of the California Farm Water Coalition. "With the state's major reservoirs only half full, there is little chance that farmers will be able to recover."
The rains over the past two weeks have created some runoff. As a result, state and federal officials on Tuesday announced they will relax protections for endangered steelhead trout and salmon to increase pumping from the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta from the current rate of 1,500 cubic feet per second to up to 6,500 cubic feet per second for the next week or so.
That should provide about 70,000 acre-feet of water -- enough for the annual needs of roughly 350,000 people -- which will be stored in San Luis Reservoir near Los Banos for cities and farmers.
"The February and March storms have probably kept us from breaking records for historic drought, but they haven't rescued us from that drought," said Mark Cowin, director of the State Department of Water Resources.
Also Tuesday, local water districts around the state continued to put conservation rules into effect.
The Alameda County Water District, which serves 331,000 residents in Fremont, Newark and Union City, imposed a new rule that limits lawn watering to one day a week through May 31. After that, watering is allowed two days a week through Sept. 30.
Environmentalists said the drought is a reminder that even in normal years, California farms and cities have rights to more water than is produced by nature. They argued that the state needs to invest more in conservation, such as better management of overtapped groundwater and more drip irrigation on farms -- which use 80 percent of the water that humans consume in California -- and in urban projects such as water recycling and installation of water-efficient appliances and landscaping.
"For far too long, Californians have used more water than we can sustain and done so in ways that are not as efficient as we could," said Steve Fleischli, director of water programs for the Natural Resources Defense Council. "This system of too little supply and too much demand is finally catching up with us."
For the ski industry, this week's snow extends the season a little. But this season, now winding down, will finish with a 40 percent drop in the number of visitors to California's 27 ski resorts, compared to the five-year average of 7.4 million visitors a year, said Bob Roberts, executive director of the California Ski Industry Association. That will make it the worst year since the late 1980s, he said.
"I'm looking up at blue skies and 15 inches of new powder," Roberts said Tuesday from Lake Tahoe. "We sure wish this would have arrived about three weeks ago. This is not going to be one of our better years."
A weaker storm system may reach the Bay Area on Thursday night or Friday morning, but it's not expected to pack much of a punch. The National Weather Service said that storm system might deliver one-tenth of an inch of rain to most areas.
Staff writer Mark Gomez contributed to this report. Paul Rogers covers resources and environmental issues. Contact him at 408-920-5045. Follow him at Twitter.com/PaulRogersSJMN.