10+ Feet of Snow Bury California's Sierra Nevada as Heavy Rain Knocks Down Drought
Jon Erdman and Chris Dolce
Published: January 12, 2017
For over a week, California was on the front lines under a siege of heavy rain that has caused widespread flooding and mudslides, while feet of snow have buried the Sierra Nevada.
The Sierra were burried by numerous waves of showers, storms, and even a blizzard that resulted in totals of up to 79 inches in the Lake Tahoe region during the 48 hours ending Wednesday morning. When looking back at the past seven days, more than 10 feet of snow have fallen in parts of the Tahoe region.
Not all news was bad news as far as the heavy rain goes. In just one week, the area in exceptional drought, the highest level of drought, was knocked down by 16%. The heavy rain put the first major dent in the Western Drought since the drought began. For more on the how this heavy rain impacted drought in California, please see our article on that topic.
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In the seven days ending on January 11th, 2017, locally more than two feet of rain have fallen in some higher-elevation locations.
If that wasn't enough, the latest round of stormy weather was even accompanied by an EF0 tornado that touched down in the Sacramento area just after midnight on Jan. 11.
(MORE: Where Snowfall Has Topped 200 Inches This Season)
Many rivers across central and northern California flooded in the deluge, some even reaching major flood stage. Numerous roads were flooded from the Bay Area northward toward Santa Rosa and Napa on January 10.
Here are some highlights of the river levels we've seen:
Levels on the Truckee River were the highest since New Year's Eve 2005.
The Napa River crested on Jan. 8 in the Napa Valley, and saw a second and slightly lower crest early Wednesday morning.
- St. Helena, California: Crested at 18.82 feet on Jan. 8, and a second lower crest occurred late Tuesday.
- Napa, California: Crested at 26.81 feet on Jan. 8, roughly comparable to the Feb. 3, 1998, flood. A second, slightly lower crest occurred Jan. 11.
The Merced River near Yosemite National Park, California, crested Monday above the level at which the two main roads in the park become flooded (Northside and Southside Drives). This last happened on May 16, 2005.
Atmospheric River Storm Recap Jan. 6-9
In just 24 hours from Sunday morning through Monday morning, there were 105 reports of flooding, flash flooding or landslides in California and Nevada.
Here are some seven-day precipitation totals (rain, as of Tuesday morning, Jan. 10, according to the NWS-California Nevada River Forecast Center):
- 31.00 inches near Incline Village, Nevada (all snow)
- 27.45 inches at Three Peaks (3350' elevation; southern Monterey County)
- 24.99 inches at Nature Point (5150' elevation just south of Yosemite Nat'l Park)
- 22.99 inches at Huysink, California (Sierra west of Truckee)
- 21.88 inches at Downieville, California (northern Sierra)
- 21.39 inches at Venado, California (Sonoma County)
- 19.09 inches at Peppermint (7355' elevation; east of Porterville in southern Sierra)
- 18.16 inches at Blue Canyon (5280' elevation in the northern Sierra)
- 14.07 inches at Cisco (all rain)
- 5.27 inches at Napa County Airport
- 4.78 inches at Sacramento Int'l Airport
- 3.86 inches at Downtown San Francisco
- 3.63 inches at Carson City, Nevada
- 3.07 inches at the Reno-Tahoe Int'l Airport
- 2.45 inches at the Fresno Air Terminal
- 1.39 inches at L.A. Int'l Airport
South Lake Tahoe, California, at an elevation of about 6,300 feet, picked up almost 2 feet of snow, then over 4 inches of rain, and will then pick up feet of snow this week.
The seven-day precipitation total ending early on the morning of Jan. 9 was the second wettest seven-day period on record in South Lake Tahoe dating to 1968, according to the NOAA Weather Prediction Center's forecast operations chief meteorologist, Greg Carbin.
A mudslide shut down a stretch of heavily-traveled Interstate 80 near Truckee, California, on Jan. 8.
Understandably, due to the weight of all that rain on existing snowpack, the avalanche danger was extreme in the Sierra. The Sierra Avalanche Center reported widespread avalanches on Carson Pass on Jan. 8.
All this rain prompted the California Department of Water Resources to open all gates of the Sacramento Weir on Jan. 9 for the first time in 11 years. This 101-year-old structure protects the city of Sacramento from excessive water flow, diverting it west of the city in the Yolo Bypass.
As if that wasn't enough, high winds also downed trees in several areas of northern California. A gust in the Sierra reached 173 mph on Jan. 8.
Sadly, these winds downed the iconic Sequoia "tunnel tree" in California's Calaveras Big Trees State Park, estimated to be more than 1,000 years old.
Round #1 Recap: Storm Totals From Winter Storm Helena Jan. 1-4
Several landslides were reported in parts of northern California from January 3-4, particularly in Santa Cruz County. Up to two feet of water was reported near downtown Yountville, and two right lanes of the 101 freeway in downtown San Francisco were flooded by a couple feet of water.
Parts of northern California's coastal range and Bay Area mountains had picked up over 6 inches of rain from this first event.
Generally from one-quarter to one inch of rain had fallen in lower elevations of northern California, including San Francisco, San Jose and the city of Santa Cruz.
From January 1-4, parts of the Sierra Nevada picked up more than four feet of snow. The top totals were 56 inches at Boreal and Soda Springs.
Jonathan Erdman is a senior meteorologist at weather.com and has been an incurable weather geek since a tornado narrowly missed his childhood home in Wisconsin at age 7.
MORE: Flooding in California and Nevada