By Sharon Bernstein
SACRAMENTO, Calif. (Reuters) - A winter storm could bring up to 18 inches of snow to California's Sierra Nevada mountains this week, forecasters said, bolstering the state's drought-diminished snowpack but prompting warnings of possible hazards for holiday travelers.
The storm, expected to hit the mountain range north of Yosemite, would be the latest of several to pummel the region this fall.
"We’ve got more snow so far than we have in the last couple of years," said Nathan Owen, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Sacramento.
The weather service is warning that travelers in the mountain and foothill areas north of Yosemite and from Lake Tahoe to Reno may find roads that are slick with rain or impassable because of snow.
It has issued winter storm warnings from Tuesday morning through Wednesday morning for the two areas.
The anticipated snow is exciting news for a state ravaged by four years of drought. Snow in the mountains is relied on to melt in the spring and feed streams and reservoirs throughout California, which fell this year to the lowest level in five centuries.
But David Rizzardo, the state's chief of Snow Surveys and Water Supply Forecasting, said it is far too soon to celebrate the end of California's four-year drought.
In fact, he said, while this fall seems wetter than usual, it is really just about average if not a little bit behind what the state gets when drought conditions are not present.
"The past four years have tainted our view on what 'normal' late-fall conditions should be like," Rizzardo said, adding that two of the last four years started out wet, only to dry up way too soon.
Meteorologists are hopeful that this will indeed be a wet winter for the most populous U.S. state, thanks to the Pacific Ocean warming phenomenon known as El Nino, which can bring extra precipitation to parts of California.
Owen said it is far too soon to credit El Nino with the storms that have hit the state so far this year - or to predict how California will fare as the winter rainy season progresses.
The three storms that passed through the region over the past few weeks have dropped a welcome blanket of snow already, prompting several ski resorts to open early.
(Reporting by Sharon Bernstein; Editing by Leslie Adler)