‘Atmospheric River’ dumps heavy rain and snow across California

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) — A powerful storm Saturday ushered in the new year in California, with much of the state witnessing torrential rains or heavy snowfall that rumbled through traffic and shut down freeways.

In the high Sierra Nevada, up to 2 feet (0.6 meters) of snow could accumulate Saturday through Sunday morning. The National Weather Service in Sacramento warned of dangerous driving conditions and posted photos on Twitter showing traffic on snowy mountain passes, where vehicles had to be equipped with chains or four-wheel drive.

The so-called Atmospheric River Storm was drawing in a long, wide plume of moisture from the Pacific Ocean, and flooding and landslides caused by the storm closed portions of roads in Northern California.

The California Highway Patrol said a section of US 101 – one of the state’s main traffic arteries – has been closed indefinitely south of San Francisco due to flooding. Videos on Twitter showed mud-colored water flowing down the streets of San Francisco, and a staircase in Oakland turned into a veritable waterfall by heavy rain.

Weather Service meteorologist Courtney Carpenter said the storm could get an inch of rain Saturday in the Sacramento area before moving south. A ski resort south of Lake Tahoe has closed chairlifts due to flooding and operational issues, and posted a photo on Twitter showing an empty lift tower and chairs surrounded by water.

“We are seeing a lot of flooding,” Carpenter said.

The Stockton Police Department released photos of a flooded underpass and a car that appeared stuck in more than a foot (30 centimeters) of water.

The rain was welcomed in drought-scorched California, but it takes a lot more precipitation to make a significant difference. The past three years have been the driest on record in California.

A winter storm warning was in effect Sunday for high elevations in the Sierra, from south of Yosemite National Park to north of Lake Tahoe, where up to 1.5 meters of snowfall is possible atop the mountains, the National Weather Service says in Reno, Nevada.

A flood watch was in effect across much of northern California through New Year’s Eve. Officials warned that rivers and streams could overflow and urged residents to prepare sandbags.

Some rainfall totals in the San Francisco Bay Area exceeded 4 inches (10 centimeters).

The National Transportation Agency reported numerous road closures, including Highway 70 east of Chico, which was partially closed by a landslide, and the north side of Highway 49 east of Sacramento, which was closed due to flooding. In El Dorado County, east of Sacramento, a section of Highway 50 was closed due to flooding.

Humboldt County, where a 6.4 magnitude earthquake struck Dec. 20, also saw roads begin to flood, according to the National Weather Service’s Eureka office. A bridge that was temporarily closed last week due to earthquake damage could be closed again if the Eel River, which it crosses, becomes too high, officials said.

It was the first of several storms expected to move through California over the next week. The current system is expected to be warmer and wetter, while next week’s storms will be colder, lowering snow levels in the mountains, said Hannah Chandler-Cooley, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Sacramento.

The Sacramento area could receive a total of 4 to 5 inches (10 to 13 centimeters) of rain during the week, Chandler-Cooley said.

“Strong winds could damage trees and lead to power outages and high waves on Lake Tahoe could capsize small vessels,” the Reno Weather Service said.

Avalanche warnings were issued in the backcountry around Lake Tahoe and the Mammoth Lakes south of Yosemite.

On the Eastern Front in the Sierra, flood watches and warnings continue over the weekend north and south of Reno, Nevada, where minor to moderate flooding was forecast along some rivers and streams until the weekend.

In southern California, moderate to heavy rain was falling on Saturday. The region will begin to dry out on New Year’s Day and the Jan. 2 Rose Parade in Pasadena is expected to avoid precipitation.

Another round of heavy showers was forecast for Tuesday or Wednesday, the National Weather Service said in Oxnard.

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