Atmospheric river soaks Bay Area, brings massive snowstorm to the Sierra Nevada

Maggie Angst and Summer Lin, The Mercury News on

Published in Weather News

SAN JOSE, Calif. — A potent storm slammed the Golden State on Monday, drenching the Bay Area with heavy rainfall that triggered flood watches and dumping massive amounts of snow on the Sierra Nevada that made traveling treacherous.

The atmospheric river storm was expected to deliver as much as 7 feet of snow to the Lake Tahoe area by Tuesday, which should jump-start the ski season just in time for the holiday crowds hoping to get lost in a winter wonderland.

“At this time last week, most of the mountains were just dirt,” said Bryan Allegretto, a snow forecaster for Open Snow. “But the ski resorts are going to be in really good shape after these storms.”

Following a smaller storm last week that dropped about 3-6 inches of snow in Tahoe and brought with it colder temperatures, a handful of resorts opened over the weekend, including Northstar, Heavenly and Kirkwood, all owned by Vail Resorts. Other resorts such as Donner Ski Ranch and Homewood Mountain Resort have not yet opened, though this week’s snowfall could change that in the coming week or two.

“We are excited to receive all this new snow, especially in the early season — it will also allow us to open new terrain sooner than we may have previously anticipated,” Dennis Baggett, a spokesperson for Vail Resorts, wrote in an email. “Whenever we receive a significant amount of snow, it requires a lot of work from each resort’s full teams to prepare for opening and to safely operate for guests.”

But as welcome as it is, the avalanche of snow falling from the sky caused plenty of problems, downing a power line, snarling highway traffic and creating whiteouts that wipe out visibility.

“We’re seeing some pretty hazardous conditions with the mixture of heavier snow and winds, so we’re basically telling people not to travel up into the mountains, whether that’s smaller roads or the main highways,” said Anna Wanless, a forecaster with the National Weather Service in Sacramento.

In the Bay Area, the steady and occasionally torrential downpour of rain and powerful wind gusts triggered flash-flood watches, evacuations and several major road closures.

A flash-flood watch was put in place until 10 p.m. for areas scarred by the CZU Lighting Complex fires in the Santa Cruz Mountains, the Dolan Fire in Big Sur and the River and Carmel fires just south of Salinas. The National Weather Service warned that the heavy rainfall around the scorched landscapes could lead to rock slides, debris flows and downstream flash floods. That threat prompted Monterey County to issue an evacuation warning for the Dolan Fire burn scar and areas of River Road in Salinas.


In Big Sur, officials closed a 40-mile stretch of Highway 1 at Deetjen’s Big Sur Resort and Ragged Point in anticipation of the storm. The closure, which began at 8 p.m. Sunday, was to remain in place until Tuesday.

In downtown San Mateo, scaffolding on the side of a building on the 300 block of El Camino Real collapsed amid the heavy rain and winds, striking three vehicles in the left turn lane and forcing a road closure. The people in the vehicles sustained minor injuries but were not hospitalized, according to Lt. Matthew Earnshaw of the San Mateo Police Department.

And in Richmond, Mayor Tom Butt reported that the heavy rains caused three sewage overflows totaling 200,000 gallons along Cutting Boulevard and Hartnett Avenue.

“There is a lot of water in this system,” said Brayden Murdock, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service. “But even if the winds and rain have stopped in your area, you can still see some chance of rain tonight, and you should remain alert.”

Although by itself the atmospheric river is a drop in the bucket as far as the drought is concerned, the rainy season that began on Oct. 1 is shaping up to be much wetter than last year. As of Sunday, San Jose had received 2.42 inches of rain since Oct. 1, compared to last year when only 0.37 of an inch dropped in the same period, according to the weather service.

Most of Northern California is still in an “exceptional drought,” meaning that water levels are “inadequate” for agriculture, reservoirs are “extremely low” and fire season continues year-round, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor. Portions of Alameda, Santa Clara and Contra Costa counties are under “exceptional drought” — the most dire level.

“It’s like taking a step forward after taking five steps back,” Murdock said. “Yes that rain is good, but we would probably like to see some more.”


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