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California drought outlook improves after weeks of historic storms

Even though millions of gallons of rain has fallen on the Golden State in recent weeks, it's not likely enough to erase at least four years of below-normal precipitation.

SAN FRANCISCO (CN) — No, California's drought is not over, not by a long shot. But weeks of near-constant rainfall have improved the situation considerably, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor's weekly report released Thursday.

The map updated Thursday shows most of the state in moderate or severe drought after about seven atmospheric river storms swept through the state since Christmas Day. Only a small portion in the extreme northeastern portion of the state remains in extreme drought, while the northwestern corner of the state and much of Imperial County dropped to the lowest level of drought, termed abnormally dry.

The Sacramento and Central valleys, which were in extreme and extraordinary drought just three months ago, have seen conditions improve to severe. Most coastal locations and some eastern foothill areas have improved to the moderate category.

According to the California Data Exchange Center, many of the major water supply reservoirs are still below or barely reaching historic averages for this time of year, and have plenty of room for more water. Those which have topped historic averages are the Camanche, Millerton and Camucha reservoirs.  

Many of California's major water reservoirs are below or at historic water capacity averages. (California Data Exchange Center / Courthouse News)

The number and force of atmospheric river storms in California prompted President Joe Biden to grant Governor Gavin Newsom’s request for a federal state of emergency, after the governor placed the entire state under a declared emergency during the prior week. 

The emergency declaration enables deploying additional federal aid resources, as multiple counties face flooding and the state’s storm-related death toll has reached 17.

The most affected counties include Monterey County, where the Salinas River is forecast to reach moderate flood stage by Thursday night that could leave thousands stranded on the Monterey peninsula. Newsom visited storm-battered Capitola on Tuesday, up the Santa Cruz coast from Rio Del Mar, that was hard hit by flooding creek waters. Crews have worked to reopen major highways closed by rockslides, flooding or mud, while more than 10,000 people who were ordered out of seaside towns on the Central Coast were cleared to return home.

But more storms are on the way until an extended dry period finally returns around Jan. 19. 

The National Weather Service forecasts a weak weather front, with the North Bay and Russian River seeing up to three inches of rain but no new flooding. Heavy rain returns Saturday, accompanied by gusty winds, and may “overwhelm storm drains and likely lead to a renewed round of urban and small stream flooding across the Bay Area.”

More storms come in for Sunday and Monday, with no relief expected until midweek.

The Sierra can expect moderate to heavy snow starting Saturday, spreading across the Lake Tahoe Basin and the eastern Sierra and reaching valley floors by Sunday morning.  Several inches of new snow will blanket the northeastern part of the state with up to a foot and a half at elevations above 7,000 feet. Already, copious amounts of snow have fallen in the Sierra Nevada, Great Basin and parts of the Upper Colorado River Basin. The National Integrated Drought Information System reported Thursday that the snow water equivalent is 200% to over 300% of normal for much of this region, a record high for this time of year at many sites in the Sierra Nevada.

After about Jan. 19, high pressure is expected to return and send storms coming across the Pacific Ocean to the north, although it is uncertain how long that period without precipitation will last. 

“Today will be the last completely dry day for a while,” the National Weather Service reported Thursday morning. “So it’s the best opportunity to prepare and plan for (the) next round of storms.”

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