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Federal forecasters say winter rains, snowfall likely won't end California's drought

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FRESNO, California — Parts of California could receive above-average rain and snow this winter but not enough to end the worsening drought, federal forecasters said Thursday.

As a result, the drought likely will persist or intensify, said Mike Halpert, acting director of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Climate Prediction Center.

The announcement predicts precipitation for December through February, when snow typically falls in the Sierra Nevada mountains forming a snowpack that melts through summer as runoff and flows to rivers and reservoirs.

The forecast puts the state on course for a fourth dry year after Gov. Jerry Brown declared a drought emergency in January.

Forecasters have said 60 percent of California is in exceptional drought — the worst category — and 2013 was the state's driest year on record.

California reservoirs are at 36 percent of capacity, the California Department of Water Resources reports. The largest of them, Shasta Reservoir north of Redding, is 25 percent full.

State and federal officials this year provided no irrigation water to many Central Valley farmers this year.

As a result, those farmers have left thousands of acres unplanted and drawn heavily on groundwater rather than mountain runoff. Hundreds of residential wells have run dry, and the state has instituted fines for residents caught wasting water.

Firefighters have combated over 5,200 wildfires so far this year, up by about 1,000 from the average, costing the state nearly $233 million, California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection spokesman Daniel Berlant said.

Given the probability and new science of weather prediction, Halpert said there remains a possibility that California could be unexpectedly drenched from top to bottom, but that's not likely based on his analysis.

A much-awaited tropical weather pattern over the Pacific Ocean, called an El Nino, has yet to form, forecasters said. The strong tropical systems often bring more moisture into California over the winter.

Halpert said there is a 67 percent chance of a weak El Nino occurring by the year's end, offering little help.

"Even in the best case, there's going to be serious drought in most parts of the state when the winter is over," Halpert said.

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