By Paul Rogers

Bay Area News Group

Last week’s major snowstorms brought a welcome change to the Sierra Nevada Range — the source of nearly one-third of California’s water — boosting the overall snow pack by nearly 80 percent.

Across most of the Sierra, the blizzards dumped 5 to 8 feet of snow, the biggest Sierra storm system of this winter.

But the overall snowpack remains well below normal. Last Monday, the statewide snow pack was at 22 percent of the historic average. On Monday, it had increased to 37 percent.

“We’re still far below normal,” said Doug Carlson, a spokesman for the California Department of Water Resources. “Today is barely a third of what it should be on this date. Although the storms were notable compared with the extraordinarily dry month of February, they were not a game-changer. Californians are still encouraged to make water conservation away of life.”

The snow water equivalent of the snowpack a week ago, meaning the amount of water in any given area if the snow was all melted, jumped from 5.3 inches last Monday to 9.5 inches on Monday, an increase of 79.2 percent.

But the historic average is 30 inches by April 1, so the state would need another four or five storms like last week’s by April 1 to reach the historic average.

The chances of that are about 1 in 50, according to the National Weather Service office in Reno.

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Still, because of the very wet winter last year — the wettest in 20 years — reservoirs around California remain full or near full, giving the state a cushion this summer against major water shortages.

“That’s the good news,” said Carlson. “You have to take everything together to come up with a composite picture. We’re not sounding an alarm bell now, but we’d certainly like to see more snow, not only for winter recreation but for all of California throughout the rest of the water year.”

The storms, which closed Interstate 80 on Thursday, also delayed the state’s March 1 manual snow survey, an event done every month in the winter at Phillips Station off Highway 50, not far from Lake Tahoe.

That event, largely a photo opportunity for TV crews and other media, found that the snow pack at Phillips Station was 41 inches deep, or 39 percent of the historic average.

“It’a very promising start for March,” said Frank Gehrke, chief of snow surveys for the Department of Water Resources.

Standing in snowshoes with blustery winds whipping around him, Gehrke called the situation “a much happier, rosier picture than a week ago.”

Last year at the beginning of March, Phillips Station was at 180 percent of normal snowpack. And this year, with a high-pressure ridge blocking many storms and bringing warm weather from December to February, the Sierra was facing one of its driest winters ever recorded since modern records began in 1950, raising concerns that California might have been heading back into drought conditions this summer.

“It’s an encouraging start,” Gehrke told reporters. “But we have quite a way to go to get to average.”

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