March Roars In as California Pounded by First Big Storm of Winter

(CN) – With spring in less than 20 days, California welcomed its first big storm of the winter Thursday that delivered a deluge to a parched state on the verge of plunging into another drought.

While the state’s reservoirs need replenishing and the Sierra snowpack sits well below historical averages, the strength and length of the storm isn’t welcome news for all Californians.

In Santa Barbara County, where mudslides killed 21 people and destroyed several homes in early January, mandatory evacuation orders went out to residents who live near the burn areas of the Thomas, Sherpa and Whittier fires.

The Thomas Fire, sparked in December, is the single largest fire by acreage in California history, destroying vast swaths of land in Ventura and Santa Barbara counties.

Due to the large-scale loss of vegetation, which helps to stabilize soil on the top of hillsides and steep terrain, the areas in proximity to the Thomas Fire and others are now susceptible to mudslides.

Cal Fire made the call for residents to flee in association with Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Office.

“The decision to evacuate these areas is being made out of an abundance of caution,” said Santa Barbara County Sheriff Bill Brown, citing the potential for drainage elements in the landscape to become overtopped as the heavy rainfall continues.

Forecasters have called for as much as 7 feet of snow in the Sierra, and the weather forced the California Department of Water Resources to push back its monthly snow survey until Monday.

The water department discovered a paltry snowpack during the last survey conducted on Feb. 1: just 14 percent of the historic average at the Phillips Station near Lake Tahoe and 27 percent of the historic average statewide, according to several measuring stations located throughout the Sierra.

California has experienced a dearth of rainfall and snowfall during the winter, with only 21.3 inches of precipitation recorded across the eight stations in the Northern Sierra so far during the winter. The historic average for the stations is 51.8 inches.

With the three typically wettest months in California – December, January and February – passed, farmers, ski resorts and other water watchers are now hoping for a “March Miracle.” Those prospects improved Thursday, with the storm expected to continue to dump on most of the Golden State through Saturday afternoon.

Thursday also marked another important milestone for water management in California, as the California State Auditor released a report amid the downpour on Thursday that finds local and statewide water control boards need to do and invest more to keep pollutants from reaching the water supply.

Specifically, the audit finds regional water boards routinely fail to disclose projected costs of various programs designed to reduce pollution from runoff, despite federal regulations requiring them to do so.

“For some of the 20 pollutant-control plans we reviewed, the regional boards inadequately considered the costs local jurisdictions would incur to comply with the plans and did not determine the overall cost of stormwater management to those jurisdictions,” the report states.

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