December storm
Plowed snow is piled up Tuesday on Highway 108 where the road is closed for winter at the Sno-Park location about 7 miles east of Strawberry.

Multiple winter storms approaching the Mother Lode and the rest of the Central Sierra could drench the foothills with up to 7.5 inches of rain and wallop the high passes with more than 8 feet of snow by early next week.

Regardless of precipitation estimates, forecasters say the storms beginning late Tuesday are expected to bring steady widespread rain, mountain snow, and gusting winds. The heaviest weather is expected late Wednesday and Thursday, with the potential for significant impacts on travelers on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day.

Holiday travelers should prepare for winter driving conditions and be sure to pack warm winter clothes, extra food and water, and chains.

There’s a winter storm watch for communities along highways 4 and 108 above Murphys and Soulsbyville from 7 p.m. Tuesday to 4 p.m. Sunday, with snow levels down to 3,000 feet initially and up to a foot of snow about 6,000-foot elevations by Wednesday afternoon.

Columbia, Sonora and Jamestown could receive 5 to 7.5 inches of rainfall by Monday, Dec. 27. Some areas in the highest reaches of the Central Sierra could get up to 10 feet of snow by that time.

Dodge Ridge Ski Area near Pinecrest opened for the season Thursday after receiving 76 inches of snow at the summit and 53 inches at the base from the past week of snowfall. Staff at the resort were expecting 2 to 4 more inches Tuesday, up to 1 inch Wednesday, and 2 to 3 or more feet Thursday.

The approaching storms were coming off a low pressure system from the Gulf of Alaska that was spinning off of the California coast and gathering moisture — some of it from more southern regions of the Pacific — before moving inland, said Sierra Littlefield, a National Weather Service meteorologist in Sacramento.

The first round of rain, snow and winds is expected late Tuesday, with the brunt of the next wave expected late Wednesday and Thursday, more rounds of precipitation Saturday and Sunday, and another boost overnight Sunday into Monday, Littlefield said.

The last round of storms, from last Sunday to Thursday last week, brought 5.8 inches of rain to west of Angels Camp; 2.91 inches at New Melones; 3.29 inches to Sonora; and 4.56 inches to Groveland, Littlefield said.

Water managers say it’s still too early to say whether recent storms and approaching storms will have a significant impact on ongoing drought conditions up and down the Central Sierra, Central California, and the rest of the Golden State. 

Oceanographers say La Niña conditions that can contribute to drier winters have a roughly 95% chance of continuing through the Northern Hemisphere this winter.

The foothills of Calaveras and Tuolumne counties remained in the most dire drought category, referred to as “exceptional,” while much of the Stanislaus National Forest and the east portions of both counties were in severe drought, according to U.S. Drought Monitor scientists.

Principal reservoirs that impound runoff from waters of the biggest rivers in Calaveras and Tuolumne counties were less than half full to more than three-quarters full as of Monday.

Camanche Reservoir on the Mokelumne River was holding 39% of capacity. New Melones on the Stanislaus River, the state’s fourth-largest capacity reservoir, was 37% full. Don Pedro on the Tuolumne River, the state’s sixth-largest capacity storage facility, was 51% full.

Upstream and higher in the mountains in the Tuolumne River watershed, Hetch Hetchy Reservoir in Yosemite National Park was 73% full and Cherry Reservoir was 89% full.

McClure Reservoir, located farther south on the Merced River in Mariposa County, was holding 21% of capacity.

As of Monday, the Stanislaus River and Tuolumne River watersheds had received 13.2 inches of precipitation since the current water year began Oct. 1. That total was 134% of average for the date Dec. 20.

State Department of Water Resources snow sensors showed snow water equivalents at 95% of normal for Dec. 20 across the Central Sierra as of Monday, though the amount was 25% of the April 1 average. 

April 1 is a key date each year for water managers trying to estimate the winter’s total snowpack and what it will mean for water supplies the rest of the year.

Sonora Pass on Highway 108, Ebbetts Pass on Highway 4, Monitor Pass on Highway 89, and Tioga Pass on Highway 120 were closed for winter last week as a result of the previous storms.

Contact Guy McCarthy at or (209) 770-0405. Follow him on Twitter at @GuyMcCarthy.

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