RENO - For farmers and ranchers caught in the grip of the long and ruinous drought across the West, the heavy snow falling in the Sierra Nevada and other parts of the region is nothing short of white gold.
"The roads are a little icy, so you have to drive a little slower, but being farmers, we welcome all this moisture," Sue Frey of Fallon said from her family's third-generation Rambling River Ranch in Nevada.
The Sierra Nevada's eastern front has received more than 12 feet of snow over the past two weeks - the most in nearly a century - and Southern California and the Southwest have been drenched with some of the heaviest rains on record.
The snow and the torrential rain have not broken the drought yet. It could take years of such weather to do that. But it's a start, and it has raised people's spirits, especially in Nevada, Arizona, New Mexico and Utah.
"We've kicked over that first domino and are chipping away at long-term drought," said Mark Svoboda, a climatologist for the National Drought Mitigation Center at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln.
Drought has gripped the West for five to seven years in most places, and up to a decade in others. Scientists at the U.S. Geological Survey say it could be the worst drought in 500 years. Reservoirs have drained, rivers have dropped, and the mountain snowpack - the source of three-fourths of the West's water - has been meager.
The dry weather has taken its toll through water shortages and catastrophic wildfires. Crop failures have put farmers out of business and sent small farm towns into a slow, sad decline.
Against that background, the deluge is bringing smiles, but the joy is tempered. Climatologists warn the record rain and snow have missed the Northwest, and the gains could be erased by another hot, dry spring.
Moreover, a deluge of rain - downtown Los Angeles had its wettest 15 consecutive days on record, with 17 inches falling in the period ending Monday - is not the best for drought-busting.
Heavy rain quickly saturates the topsoil and the rest runs off rather than soaking into the ground. Gradual rain over long periods, or slowly melting snow, allows water to seep down, doing a better job of replenishing groundwater.
Most of the Western United States remains in some sort of drought, from Canada to Mexico, from the Sierra Nevada range to east of the Rocky Mountains. The most severe conditions are in Montana, Idaho and Wyoming.
"No optimism here yet," said Ted Day, a water engineer for the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation's Pacific Northwest Region in Boise, Idaho. "What is going on down there in California and Nevada is just missing us."
Runoff from the storms is expected to raise the level of Lake Mead, the main source of water for Las Vegas, by 2 feet. However, over the years the reservoir has fallen 90 feet below full. Boat ramps and marinas were designed for a lake at least 49 feet higher than the current level.
In Arizona where the entire eastern half of the state is in a severe drought, the heavy rains have some rivers running for the first time in seven years.
"It makes us feel pleasantly optimistic, but we have a long way to go," said Herb Guenther, director of the Arizona Department of Water Resources.
"We are in year seven of drought here. We have been behind the normal curve by anywhere from 20 percent to 70 percent," he said. "So if you are down 20 percent in year one, you need 120 percent in year two. If you're down 30 percent again, you need 150 percent the next year."
"We are several hundred percent behind so it is going to take us a while to catch up," he said. "If we got it all in one year, we would meet down in the Gulf of Mexico somewhere."
The Agriculture Department's new drought report issued Thursday showed significant improvement in Nevada, with only the extreme northwest corner of the state now in the second-to-worst category of "extreme drought."
A large part of western Nevada that previously was "extreme" has improved to "severe" drought and much of the rest of the state has improved to "moderate drought" or even the least serious status of "abnormally dry."
"In Nevada, we are seeing a real chipping away of the severe drought and extreme drought conditions," Svoboda said.
Reno, which averages only 7.48 inches of precipitation a year, recorded better than 1.5 inches the first 10 days of the year thanks to 4 feet of snow that fell on the valley floor east of the Sierra, where more than 8 inches at a time is unusual.
Joel Grossman, who boards his horses at the Sheridan Creek Ranch in Gardnerville south of Reno, said prolonged drought has had a serious impact on grass and hay production there in recent years.
"Irrigation water depends on our snow. The past few years we've had to stop irrigating in the middle of July. It probably won't be that way this year," Grossman said.
On the Net:
Drought Monitor: http://www.drought.unl.edu/dm/monitor.html