Heavy rains make a dent as California's drought has eased
Weeks of atmospheric river storms wash away much of `severe' status within state, federal report shows
For the first time in more than two years, the majority of California is no longer in a severe drought, the federal government reported Jan. 12, a dramatic turnaround following a series of powerful atmospheric river storms since Christmas.
Overall, 46% of California's land area remains in severe drought, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor, a weekly report put out by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the University of Nebraska-lincoln. Only a month ago, on Dec. 6, it was 85%.
“Intense precipitation in California the past few weeks particularly late December and early January has significantly reduced drought intensity in California,” wrote Richard Tinker, a meteorologist with the NOAA'S Climate Prediction Center in College Park, Maryland.
Last week marked the most improvement in California's drought since Nov. 17, 2020, when 41% of the state's land area was in severe drought. The last time none of the state was classified as being in severe drought was nearly three years ago, on March 10, 2020, after a disappointing winter rain and snow season that year began a threeyear arid stretch.
The wet conditions could be the end of a difficult saga that has fallowed farm fields, caused millions of residents to live under water restrictions, and harmed fish and wildlife. But state officials say they need to see more rain before declaring the drought over.
Gov. Gavin Newsom declared a drought emergency on April 12, 2021, for Mendocino and Sonoma counties, where reservoirs had fallen to parched levels and water shortages were emerging. He expanded the designation to 41 counties the following month and statewide by October 2021, urging California residents to cut water use 15%. The declaration also offered various forms of assistance to local communities, including help expanding wells and upgrading failing water systems in rural areas.
Newsom never ordered mandatory city-by-city water conservation targets with fines for communities that fail to meet them, as former Gov. Jerry Brown did during the 20122017 drought. But last year Newsom did require all major water providers in the state to impose their “stage 2” drought rules, which limited the number of days people could water lawns and set other restrictions that varied depending on local city rules.
When Newsom made the first drought declaration nearly two years ago, 85% of California was in severe drought, according to the Drought Monitor — almost double the level now.
Since late December, the weather, and California's drought outlook, has shifted dramatically. California has been hammered by seven atmospheric river storms since Christmas. They have caused flooding in coastal areas and the Sacramento
Valley and sent the Sierra snowpack to 226% of its historical average.
Every week, the Drought Monitor report uses soil moisture, rainfall totals, snow, reservoir levels and other factors to rank parts of the United States in drought severity on a scale of 1 to 4, with 1 being moderate drought, 2 being severe drought, 3 being extreme drought and 4 being exceptional drought.
In recent weeks, coastal areas and the Sierra Nevada have received so much precipitation that they have improved to the lowest drought category, moderate drought. That includes most of the Bay Area, which was in severe drought just a month ago.
The heavy rains have filled smaller reservoirs in many communities. All seven of the Marin Municipal Water District's reservoirs reached 100% capacity this week, as did four of
the 10 owned by the Santa Clara Valley Water District, while the seven run by the East Bay Municipal Utility District are 84% full. Hetch Hetchy, the main reservoir on San Francisco's water system, was 79% full on Jan. 11, or 120% of its historical average.
State and federal officials have welcomed the rain and snow. But they have cautioned in recent days that the drought is not over yet, because the largest reservoirs in California, which fell to dangerously low levels last summer, are not yet full.
The largest, Shasta Lake, near Redding, was 44% full on Jan. 11, 77% of its historical average for that date, and slowly but steadily rising. The second-largest, Oroville, in Butte County, was 49% full, or 90% of the historical average, having risen 97 feet since Dec. 1.
Last year a very wet December raised hopes the
drought was ending, only to be followed by the driest January, February and March in recorded California history, leaving the Sierra snowpack at just 37% at the end of last winter's rain and snow season on April 1.
State and federal water managers said this week that before declaring an end to the drought, they need to see how much the reservoirs continue to fill around the state, whether the storms shut off and how local water supplies, including depleted groundwater, improve and how the snowpack continues to change.
“We will be reassessing in the later part of January what this means relative to overall drought,” Karla Nemeth, director of the state Department of Water Resources, said Jan. 9.
She hinted that if conditions continue to improve, Newsom may lift the drought emergency regionally rather than statewide all at once.
“By and large, most of our reservoirs continue to be below average,” Nemeth said. “The governor declared a drought emergency a couple of years ago. He did so in certain parts of the state, and as the drought deepened and spread throughout California, that drought emergency was extended. Typically when we move out of drought emergency we follow the same format. There's a lot of variability across California, in terms of not just hydrologic conditions but water supply availability.”
Last week, 27% of the state, nearly all in the Central Valley, was mired in level 3, or extreme drought. Now less than 1% of California is, a tiny sliver of land near the Oregon border in Modoc and Siskiyou County. The last time so little of California was in extreme drought was April 14, 2020.
Tinker, in writing the weekly Drought Report, cited some of the stunning weather changes over the past week in California.
He noted that on Jan. 9, Bishop, in the Eastern Sierra, reported 3.02 inches of rain, which was the fourth wettest day in at least 71 years there. The town's winter rainfall total of 6.8 inches is more than 4 times above normal.
Since Dec. 1, downtown Sacramento reported 14.25 inches of precipitation, three times the historical average of 4.76 inches. The 16.10 inches of rain that fell on Oakland since Dec. 1 is also triple the historical average. And farther south, Santa Maria in Santa Barbara County reported 10.61 inches of rain since Dec. 1, compared with a normal total of 2.96 inches.