Will epic California storms be enough to end state’s drought?

It will take more than a few storms to rescue California from its historic drought

Josh Marcus
San Francisco
Wednesday 11 January 2023 00:36 GMT
Vehicles left submerged in Morro Bay floodwaters as storm hits California

An “atmospheric river” is drenching California with storms, bringing exceptionally high levels of precipitation across the golden state.

Thanks to a series of storms beginning in late December, areas of California have received 400 to 600 per cent of their normal rain levels, according to the National Weather Service. By early January, state scientists at Phillips Station in the Sierra Nevada mountains were recording snows that were 177 per cent higher than average.

The intense weather has often proved catastrophic on the ground, causing flooding, downed trees, and mudslides that have killed at least 16 people and left roughly 224,000 people in the state without power, the Washington Post reports.

Despite all the destruction it has caused, will the atmospheric river end California’s historic drought, the worst in state history? Not quite, according to scientists.

The deluge may help temporarily ease some of California’s water issues, but the causes and solutions to the state’s drought go far beyond one season of exceptional weather.

First, it’s worth putting the recent weather in perspective. While it may be causing day-to-day record precipitation, the more important trend to consider is the yearly average.

For instance, despite heavy snows, California was still only at 64 per cent of its wet season average for the Sierras, the Los Angeles Times reports. Overall, the state is still only at 80 per cent of what’s considered a normal season of precipitation, according to Bloomberg. In 2022, California ranked in the top 10 driest states in the country, according to a Naitonal Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration news release viewed by The Independent.

“No single storm event will end the drought. We’ll need consecutive storms, month after month after month of above-average rain, snow and runoff to help really refill our reservoirs so that we can really start digging ourselves out of extreme drought,” Sean de Guzman, manager of snow surveys for the Department of Water Resources, told the paper.

There’s also no telling whether the wet weather will continue throughout early 2023. In late 2021, heavy storms pounded California in the winter, only for the following January through March to be an extremely dry period. Even if it does, the fact that the state has been in a drought for years, the worst in Southwest North America in the last 1,200 years, leaves a lot of making up to do.

“This has created a huge water deficit that will take time — and much more rain and snow – to erase,” Jeanine Jones of the California Department of Water Resources told Bloomberg. “Groundwater levels in much of the state have also been depleted by the numerous dry years. It would take more than a single wet year for groundwater levels to substantially improve at the statewide scale.”

There’s some room for optimism, however.

The rain will help temporarily fill many of the state’s reservoirs, freeing up water for agriculture and other uses in drought-parched regions across the state.

Jered Shipley, the general manager of the Anderson-Cottonwood Irrigation District, told Grist he’s “cautiously optimistic” the extra water will bring some real benefits.

“This drought was a natural disaster, he said. “You may not have seen apartment buildings on fire or communities underwater, but [there were] displaced families, migrant workers not having jobs, businesses closing because nobody needed to service their tractors, feed stores closing.”

Nonetheless, 12 of the state’s 17 major reservoirs remain below historical averages, according to the California Department of Water Resources data.

Nicholas Pinter, associate director of UC Davis’ Center for Watershed Sciences, told Capital Public Radio that he’s “pretty sure that we’re going to fill all the reservoirs in Northern California and at least temporarily take a bite out of our drought situation.”

It will take fixing the longer-term drivers of the drought, including the climate crisis and water use practices, to really make a dent, according to experts.

Noah Diffenbaugh, a climate scientist at Stanford University’s Water in the West programme, compared the recent storms to getting a few paychecks at the end of years racking up debt.

“Most people wouldn’t say the problem’s been solved because of one normal monthly paycheck,” he told Vox. “A normal year of rainfall would not break the drought. In fact, even one wet year wouldn’t necessarily break the drought.”

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