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Record rainfall, promising snowpack not enough to end California drought

The state received 80% of a normal snowpack year within three weeks — but it is not yet clear how much this will help heavily depleted water reserves.

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (CN) – California’s stored water and snowpack got a boost from a series of storms that left many areas flooded, but drought conditions are expected to drag on despite the better-than-expected start to the water year.

Julie Kalansky of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography said in a state briefing Monday that thanks to nine atmospheric river storms since New Year’s Eve, most of California has received at least 200% of normal rainfall.

The state also saw 80% of a full seasonal snowpack deposited within three weeks, meaning the event “will go down in the history books.”

The Sierra Nevada mountain range got 100% of normal precipitation within the same three weeks, and the statewide percent of average snowpack is now 240%. Snow water equivalent is currently at 200% to over 300% of normal for much of the region, with record high equivalent measurements for this time of year at a number of sites in the Sierra Nevada. Many locations have already exceeded water year peaks with snow water values at what would typically occur between mid-March to mid-April.

The total precipitation amounts receives in California arranged in a comparison graph. (Department of Water Resources / Courthouse News)

However, California Department of Water Resources climatologist Michael Anderson said the atmospheric rivers mostly missed the Klamath Basin and far north pieces of the state. The Shasta and Trinity reservoirs still have many hundreds of thousands of feet in capacity and the state must wait to measure groundwater gains from the new rainfall. 

“The real question is, how do you manage the volume of water that shows up?” he said. “When you have massive amounts of water, there really is only so much you can manage.” 

The Department of Water Resources last week launched the standing Drought Resilience Interagency and Partners Collaborative, initiated by Senate Bill 552. Its goal is to drive partnerships between local governments, experts, community representatives and state agencies to address drought planning and management. 

“Even as the state’s drought outlook improves, it’s critical that the water community all work together to advance drought planning and response for the state’s hotter, drier future,” said the department's director Karla Nemeth. “We’re looking for a variety of representatives statewide to actively participate on behalf of all water users to achieve a drought resilient future.”

Despite the good news of more water all at once than the state currently knows how to handle, Kalansky warned that it is "too soon to tell the impact to the long-term drought."

"It’s very easy for our region to slip back to drought, so we always need to be planning and prepared for that," she said.

The California drought monitor shows much of the state is still experiencing moderate to severe drought conditions, particularly the southern Central Valley and southern inland desert regions. The National Weather Service has projected another week of mostly sunny, slighter colder conditions with elevated wind speeds in some areas, and a low chance of precipitation across the state.

Joe Casola, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Western Region Climate Services director, said there are elevated chances for more cold, wet weather within the next two weeks. But he said “La Niña is still holding court” as it has since 2020 — lowering the chances of heavier precipitation events from the west. Kalansky said there is “no simple answer” for how this will affect any future atmospheric rivers.

Casola said that even if rain returns to the state's southern regions in coming spring months, “It won’t be enough to offset what we see, as far as drought conditions.” 

Asked what the rains’ effect on the state’s landscape could mean for the fire season, Kalansky said, ‘’I still think it is too early to say. What happens throughout the rest of the winter (and) early spring will influence this substantially.’’

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