By Sharon Bernstein
PHILLIPS, Calif. (Reuters) - A cold, wet start to California's winter has dumped nearly five feet of snow in the Sierra Nevada mountains, state water experts said Wednesday, fueling hope that 2016 will bring enough precipitation to help offset four years of drought.
Snow surveyors headed to the mountains in Phillips near Lake Tahoe on Wednesday for the first manual check of the state's snowpack this winter, dipping a long measuring pole into a snow-covered meadow at seven different points to see how deep the white stuff was.
"There's hope that we will have much more than we had last year," said Frank Gehrke, chief of the California Cooperative Snow Surveys Program.
His measurements confirmed data gathered earlier in the month by electronic snow sensors showing that the snowpack, which provides a third of the state's water when it melts in the spring, was above normal for the first time in three years.
At the Phillips Station monitoring site, snow was 54.7 inches deep on Wednesday, or about 136 percent of average. At nearby Lyons Creek, snow was 58 inches deep, or 120 percent of average.
Statewide, electronic monitors showed that the water content of snow in the mountains was at 105 percent of normal, above average for the first time since 2012.
By comparison, the snowpack was just 20 percent of normal on Dec. 30, 2013, and 50 percent of normal on Dec. 30, 2014.
California is in its fourth year of crushing drought that has killed millions of trees and in 2015 alone cost the state's agricultural economy $1.84 billion and 10,100 jobs, according to the University of California, Davis.
The El Nino weather and oceanic phenomenon, characterized by a warming of the Pacific Ocean that often brings precipitation to California, may help ease the drought over the next few months, but experts caution that the state's woes are far from over.
A warm winter could cause snow in the mountains to melt too soon, leading to a shortage of water in the state's dry spring and summer.
So far, the snow has stuck, prompting ski resorts to open early and sending thousands to the mountains, braving long lift lines and thronging parking lots even on a Wednesday.
"This year is so much better than last year," said Duke Walton of Sacramento, who was at the Sierra-at-Tahoe ski resort with his family on Wednesday. "Last year, half the lifts were closed."
(Reporting by Sharon Bernstein; Editing by Cynthia Osterman)