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'Drought is going to take a good kick in the pants'

By Alex Sosnowski, Accuweather.com

Jan. 23 (UPI) -- Forecasters say the drought in California and the southwestern United States is about to take a beating as one storm after another is expected to bring copious amounts of rain to coastal areas and feet of snow to the mountains through late January.

Multiple storms are expected to spar in the atmospheric boxing ring set up in the Southwest in the coming days. Each storm will have its unique qualities in terms of beneficial precipitation, but each may also bring a host of problems.

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"The Southwest drought is going to take a good kick in the pants," amid the stormy pattern, according the AccuWeather senior meteorologist Bob Smerbeck.

The unsettled weather is predicted to last until around Jan. 30 or so. And even after that, storms are likely to continue to bring substantial precipitation to Northern California with more of the Northwest likely to be in the precipitation bull's-eye.

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The first storm in the series reached the coast of Northern California during Thursday night, bringing a return of wet weather. The system will continue to spread showery, spotty rain and mountain snow across portions of the West through the weekend.

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Enough moisture and chilly air will be in place to cap the mountains in Southern California in a deep blanket of snow and also bring several inches to the mountains in Arizona and much of the interior Southwest through at least Saturday. Parts of the Rockies will get snowfall into Sunday.

However, the weekend storm system is shaping up to be the most mild-mannered of the bunch with the main storms set to arrive next week. Storms that were already lined up across the Pacific on Friday are set to arrive along the West Coast from Sunday through next Thursday. These systems are expected to unload much heavier and more widespread and problematic rainfall and mountain snowfall.

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A storm scheduled to roll ashore on Sunday and impact the region into Tuesday is expected to be quite potent with both disruptive and beneficial impacts.

Snowfall from the storm will cause difficulty for motorists venturing over the passes in California and southernmost Oregon. And snow will not just be limited to the Sierra Nevada. Snow may fall at elevations below 3,000 feet during the storm from Sunday night to Tuesday over Southern California.

"This means that a few inches of snow is likely to fall on the passes in Southern California, and there is the chance that travel over the Grapevine may stop again for a time early next week," AccuWeather chief on-air meteorologist Bernie Rayno said.

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Drenching rain from the storm is forecast to sweep southeastward at low elevations from coastal areas of Washington, Oregon and California and inland into southern Nevada and Arizona spanning Sunday and Monday. Enough rain is likely to fall along the Interstate-5 corridor to slow travel.

The various mountain ranges over the interior Southwest will do well with snow from the pattern as well. Cumulative snowfall in Flagstaff, Ariz., through Tuesday alone may range between 1 foot and 3 feet. A few feet of snow are likely to pile up over the high country of the Wasatch Range in Utah through next week.

The first storm into this weekend is forecast to produce only light and sporadic rainfall at low elevations in California, but each storm through the end of next week is likely to be "bigger and badder" in terms of rainfall, according to AccuWeather meteorologists.

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One of the storms next week may even hook up with an uncommon event from the Pacific Ocean.

"There is a chance that one of the storms, especially the one that is slated for the second half of next week, could create an atmospheric river," AccuWeather meteorologist Ryan Adamson said.

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This stream of torrential rain that sometimes extends from near Hawaii to the West Coast of the U.S. can have the effect of a fire hose and unleash torrential rainfall and widespread flooding.

There is the likelihood for the high country of the Sierra Nevada to rack up 5 feet to 10 feet of snow during the pattern into the end of January. Motorists venturing over Donner Pass, California, along I-80 should be prepared for major delays and possible closures as each storm drops anywhere from several inches to a couple of feet of snow.

Locally higher amounts of rain and snow are likely over the Southwest through the end of the month. The snow over the mountains in the region will be a big boon for the ski industry.

As of Wednesday, the mountain snow drought was serious in parts of the Southwest, according to the National Weather Service. The amount of water locked up in existing snow ranged from zero to 75% of the 30-year average from 1980 to 2010. In some areas of Arizona mountains, there was no snow cover to be found on the ground, where there is typically a few inches to a couple of feet of snow at this point of the season.

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The last storm that brought low-elevation rain and mountain snow to much of the Southwest was in late December or nearly a month ago. A storm that generated high winds in California earlier this week managed to bring soaking rain to much of the southern tier of the U.S. at midweek but did not allow moisture to spill northward.

As beneficial as the stormy pattern will be for shutting off the wildfire threat and boosting snow depth over the high country, which later feeds runoff into streams and rivers during the spring and summer and replenishes the water supply in the region, rounds of heavy rain over low elevations are likely to be too much for the landscape to handle without problems, especially in California. Motorists should be prepared for substantial delays on the highways with the risk of some roads being closed from flooding, mudslides and snowfall.

Along the coast, the stormy pattern is likely to bring episodes of gusty winds that blow in from the ocean with the potential for not only sporadic power outages, but also large waves may roll ashore with the chance of overwash and localized coastal flooding. The pattern may prove to be too stormy for small craft to venture out of port along the California coast.

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But aside from the problems the series of storms is likely to bring, the current drought has a date with destiny, and there is an excellent chance the drought will be knocked down and perhaps knocked out in some areas during the rounds of storms on the way through the end of January.

As the storm train continues and the landscape becomes progressively wetter, temperatures will be suppressed over much of the region. Temperatures are expected to average 5-10 degrees below average through the end of the month and perhaps into the first part of February. During late January, high temperatures typically range from the upper 20s over the high country of the Sierra Nevada to near 70 in the deserts.

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