California is wetter than usual this winter -- and more moisture is on the way.
The Bay Area forecast shows no hint of sun for a good week, dampening the days ahead. But the state's water watchers were rejoicing Tuesday that the Sierra snowpack water content is 124 percent of normal for this time of year.
"We're on a really good track," said John King of the California Department of Water Resources.
Curiously, much of this winter's moisture has landed in the mountains rather than Silicon Valley. Annual rainfall in both San Jose and Mountain View is slightly below average. Everywhere else is pretty soggy.
"It's the way the storms lined up," said meteorologist Austin Cross of the National Weather Service.
The Sierra snowpack, not local precipitation, is what matters to the state's water supply -- because that's where we get a lot of our water. The state estimates that it will be able to deliver almost two-thirds of water requested, up from half last year. It retains water due to pumping restrictions to protect threatened fish.
Up and down
After December's snowpack measured double its average -- the deepest in 17 years -- January was an unseasonably dry and balmy month. February started out warm too. But things got cold and wet in the last few weeks -- even last weekend's much-hyped-but-little-seen forecast of sea-level snow.
So what's so special about this year's snowpack?
"When it hits your car, it's like rain," said Meredith Malnick, 22, of Los Altos, who is living near Lake Tahoe while working at the higher, colder and drier Kirkwood Mountain Resort. "As it builds up, it gets wetter and heavier. People get stuck. They sink.
"Wet snow is like skiing through a cereal bowl filled with milk," she said. "When it's light, it's like puffy cereal."
While San Jose and the Santa Clara Valley have been spared heavy rainfall, the winter storms have dumped on the western mountain flanks of the Santa Cruz Mountains, Mount Hamilton and everywhere beyond Merced, until reaching the high Sierra.
That's because most of the storms have been coming in from the west or southwestern direction, which means the mountains catch the water before it lands here, said Jan Null of the Golden Gate Weather Services.
As of Tuesday, San Jose was 1.75 inches below normal rainfall for this time of year. Mountain View was eight-tenths of an inch behind. San Francisco was a third of an inch below normal.
However, the Santa Cruz Mountains are so wet that creeks are flowing strong enough to break through the sandbars and rush into the salty ocean, said San Mateo County ranger Barbara Morris, who watched the Bean Hollow State Beach sandbar break on Tuesday.
Mountain plants, such as manzanita, have awakened from the torpor of summer drought, producing tight clusters of white and pink flowers on branch ends.
This week promises more moisture for the blooming plants. And lots of wind.
Threat of rain
Forecasters say flash flooding and heavy rain are expected Wednesday in the Santa Cruz Mountains and from San Mateo County north. Santa Clara County will get rained on too, but only modest showers. The threat of rain and dark clouds will linger into next week.
California had a wet year in 2006, with 136 percent of normal rainfall -- but then we went through three years of drought, getting only 63 percent of normal in 2007, 80 percent in 2008 and 81 percent in 2009, King said. Happily, rainfall rebounded last year, providing 110 percent of average.
So far this year -- not including the recent February rains -- state rainfall is 132 percent above normal and is likely to reach up to 150 percent, he said.
"We're in heaven," Malnick said. "It's been a great season, and a great year."
Contact Lisa M. Krieger at 408-920-5565.