By Sharon Bernstein
SACRAMENTO, Calif. (Reuters) - Snow and rain brought an autumn respite in Northern California from the state's devastating drought on Monday, with up to 12 inches (30 cm) of snow forecast for the Sierra Nevada mountains, raising hopes for a strong ski season and a replenished snowpack.
The drought, now in its fourth year, has ravaged the state's majestic mountains, contributing to the deaths of millions of pine trees and leaving the state last year with its lowest levels of snow in 500 years.
But a series of storms over the past week have begun to moisten the state's lower elevations and brought enough snow to the Sierra to prompt several ski resorts to make plans to open early.
"This is the third storm that's rolled through and we're in early November so this is fantastic," said Michael Reitzell, president of the California Ski Industry Association. "Everyone in California is excited to see rain but the fact that it is also falling in the form of snow in the mountains is fantastic."
Last year, dry conditions forced several ski resorts to close early, and some smaller ski areas were not able to open at all.
"We've already received about three feet (one meter) of snow overall this season," said Pete Sonntag, who runs the Tahoe resorts owned by Vail Resorts, Inc. Two locations, Heavenly and Northstar, will open early on Nov. 14, he said in a statement.
The snowpack, which melts in the spring to fill the streams and lakes that provide water for homes and farms, and habitat for fish and migratory birds, was near zero percent of normal in some places last year, a 500-year low.
The early storms do not mean that the drought is over. But with the El Nino weather condition expected to bring storms during the winter, scientists have said there may be some improvement in the state's condition.
Last week, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration experts said that the portion of the state experiencing the worst form of drought had shrunk slightly, thanks to earlier storms.
On Monday, the National Weather Service predicted snow accumulation of up to 12 inches (30 cm) in higher elevations around Lake Tahoe, with snow showers continuing on and off throughout the morning on Tuesday.
At lower elevations, rain fell in parts of Northern California throughout the day on Monday, with showers and thunderstorms predicted for the Sacramento area into the evening and overnight.
(Reporting by Sharon Bernstein; Editing by Sandra Maler)