California’s drought has eased, but the state is not out of the woods just yet

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An extremely wet winter has lifted much of California out of the drought and more rain is on the way. This season’s deluge of rain and snow has “wiped out exceptional and extreme drought in California for the first time since 2020,” according to a spring forecast released today by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

The agency predicts more improvement through the spring, potentially seeing even more regions end their drought. Still, California’s recovery will be patchy and will take years to replenish some critical water resources. And as recent storms have already shown, the state will continue to face new flood hazards.

“Climate change is causing both wet and dry extremes”

“Climate change is driving both wet and dry extremes, as illustrated by NOAA’s observations and data informing this seasonal outlook,” NOAA Administrator Rick Spinrad said in a statement.

Maps from the US Drought Monitor illustrate the Golden State’s dramatic shift from arid to drenched in just a few months. In late December, toward the start of the winter season, 100 percent of the state was at least “abnormally dry.”

More than a third of California was colored bright red to represent “extreme drought” conditions on the Dec. 27 map to the left of the slider below. This week’s updated drought map, to the right of the slider, shows no red. Now just over half of the state is “abnormally dry.”

Left: California drought on December 27, 2022. Right: drought on March 14, 2023.
Images: US Drought Monitor

Record snowfall has been a feature of the season, also helping to reduce drought. The state relies on melting snow to fill rivers and reservoirs during drier seasons. According to a recent assessment by the Department of Water Resources (DWR), the amount of water trapped in snowpack across the state was 190 percent of the average for early March.

While California needs the water, the way it has descended on the state this season has been destructive. Communities have been repeatedly battered by rain and snow as a result of powerful storms arriving high in the atmosphere via a river of water vapor. Heavy snowfall, roofs have collapsed over houses and supermarkets in mountain towns. The latest storm left more than 300,000 customers without power this week. It was the 11th atmospheric river storm to hit the state this season — and another could reach California by Sunday.

More rain, combined with melting snow, puts the state at risk for more flooding this spring, NOAA says in its outlook. It’s too early to say what the incredibly wet winter will mean for California wildfires this year, state climatologist Michael Anderson said in a DWR briefing yesterday. That depends on many factors, including how quickly the snowpack melts, how quickly the landscape dries, and the timing of spring plant growth and subsequent drying.

California is coming off “three years of extraordinary drought, only on our rearview mirror,” Anderson said. Water scarcity will still be a problem in the future. The state’s groundwater basins, made up of underground aquifers, will take more than one wet season to replenish them.

In addition, Southern California gets much of its water from the Colorado River watershed, which has suffered drought for more than 20 years and is still at the center of heated negotiations over how states will share their dwindling supply.

“We’ve seen some pretty fantastic weather and we’ve seen conditions improve in a lot of places. We still have some lingering securities challenging California,” Anderson said in yesterday’s briefing.

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