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Huge storms leave California mountains buried in snow

Officials aren't calling the drought over, but in more than half the state it is — at least for now.

PHILLIPS, Calif. (CN) — A winter's worth of massive storms has left California's Sierra Nevada mountains buried in snow, a welcome sign for the drought-stricken state.

According to the California Department of Water Resources' third snow survey of the season, taken Friday, snow depth at Phillips Station near Lake Tahoe is at 116.5 inches — well above average. Statewide, the snowpack is 190% above average.

"We are either at or nearing record snowpack in California as a result of our snow survey today, with other storms on our horizon," said Department of Water Resources director Karla Nemeth at a press conference conducted over Zoom. "We could not be more fortunate to have this kind of precipitation after three punishing years of drought or dry conditions."

Officials were quick to point out that the drought in California isn't over — but it's not-not over.

According to data released Thursday by the U.S. Drought Monitor, less than half the state remains in drought conditions, a remarkable turnaround from just three months ago. As of Nov. 29, 2022, 99.5% of the state faced some degree of drought, with 40% of the state in "extreme" or "exceptional" drought. Today, none of the state falls into those two worst categories.

California reservoirs sit mostly at or above historical average for storage. Some are so high that they may soon have to be drained as a flood control measure. One notable exception: Lake Shasta, the state's largest reservoir, one of the most northern reservoirs in the state — and the linchpin of the federal Central Valley Project — remains below average.

Southern California has borne the brunt of the recent storms. Snow in the Southern Sierra stands at 231% of its historic average and also rivals the winter of 1982-1983 — with more storms on the way.

"We've had about two years of snow in the Southern Sierra in a single year," said David Rizzardo, a supervising engineer at the Department of Water Resources.

Snow in the Northern Sierra, meanwhile, stands at 136% of average. That area is crucial to the state's water supply, since it holds California's largest surface water reservoirs. Officials hope storms in the next week or so will further bolster Northern California's water and snow supply.

"It continues to be premature to describe that part of state as out of the drought," said Nemeth.

Groundwater levels in the state remain an area of concern, though again, officials are somewhat hopeful.

"It simply takes a long time to recover groundwater, and it takes some time for the data to trickle in," said Jeanine Jones, the department's interstate resources manager.

Even before the most recent storm, California had been been hit with an unusual amount of rain and snow, thanks to nine atmospheric rivers that broke over the state in just three weeks in December and January. By contrast, 2020 and 2021 combined saw only three atmospheric rivers.

The storm that blanketed the state over the last week was an exceptionally cold one, with snow falling at low elevations. Parts of Los Angeles and San Diego saw flurries, while snow in the San Bernardino mountains left some residents trapped. Snow in Yosemite National Park broke a 54-year-old daily record — 15 feet in some areas — forcing the indefinite closure of the park.

On Wednesday, Governor Gavin Newsom declared a state of emergency for 13 counties affected by winter storms, including Los Angeles, San Bernardino and Santa Barbara.

Categories: Environment Regional

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