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Sunday, April 21, 2024 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

‘Bomb cyclone’ taking aim at California prompts state of emergency

Water experts said it is impossible to tell how much of a dent the recent string of storms will make in the current statewide drought.

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (CN) — California Governor Gavin Newsom declared a state of emergency Wednesday as a bomb cyclone storm makes landfall in Northern California and amid a string of unusually strong winter storms that have battered the Golden State. 

The National Weather Service is forecasting heavy rain and snow, strong wind and the potential for flooding as the Pineapple Express moves east into California. With rain and gusty winds already underway, heavy snow and rain is expected into Thursday morning in Northern California, arriving into Thursday night in Southern California. Flooding could extend into the weekend with more storms on the way, and there is potential for widespread flooding, debris, downed trees and power outages

Newsom declared a state of emergency which authorizes the mobilization of the California National Guard and directs Caltrans to request immediate assistance through the Federal Highway Administration’s Emergency Relief Program to support highway repairs and other local recovery efforts. 

Newsom has also activated the State Operations Center to its highest level. The state and federal government have activated the Flood Operations Center, which coordinates forecasting and reservoir operations with technical support and supplies like sandbags for local agencies.

“California is mobilizing to keep people safe from the impacts of the incoming storm," Newsom said. "This state of emergency will allow the state to respond quickly as the storm develops and support local officials in their ongoing response.” 

The state has positioned fire and rescue equipment and personnel to support local resources across the state in the event of mudslides, avalanches or flash floods. The California Health and Human Services Agency will work with local and community partners to ensure vulnerable residents are aware of the storm and can access emergency services.

Impact on the drought

After four consecutive years of historic drought, there is hope that a wetter winter will start to mend the damage to vital snowpack and groundwater reservoirs that were severely depleted in 2022.

The state Department of Water Resources conducted the first snow survey of the season this week and found the Sierra snowpack — which supplies about 30% of state water — stands at 177% of average. Statewide, the snowpack is 174% of average to date. And the string of storms adding to the snowpack is forecast to continue into the next week.

“The significant Sierra snowpack is good news, but unfortunately these same storms are bringing flooding to parts of California,” said Department of Water Resources director Karla Nemeth. “This is a prime example of the threat of extreme flooding during a prolonged drought as California experiences more swings between wet and dry periods brought on by our changing climate.”

The report noted this January’s results are similar to results in 2013 and 2022, when the snowpack was at or above average — only for drought conditions to set in by the end of the water year. In 2022, record-breaking December snowfall was followed by the driest January through March on record.

“Big snow totals are always welcome, but we still have a long way to go before the critical April 1 total,” the department's forecasting unit manager Sean de Guzman said. “It’s always great to be above average this early in the season, but we must be resilient and remember what happened last year."

Jeanine Jones, the department's interstate resources manager, said in an interview that while the current bomb cyclone storm and approaching systems may help replenish water levels, there's no way to tell what the rest of the state's rainy season will bring. Statewide, reservoir storage is reported at 75% of average, close to levels seen this time last year, and 64% of wells are reporting below normal — although Jones noted rainwater will not be reflected in those groundwater wells for months.  

“We’re only one third of the way into our wettest season,” Jones said. “Whether or not the precipitation we’ve been seeing has much of an effect on drought conditions or not, we really won't know that until March or April. By that time we will have water in the bank, so to speak.”

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Categories / Environment, Regional

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