The storms plaguing California won’t put a big dent in the drought

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A deluge of storms is dumping serious amounts of rain over notoriously dry California. Still, this week’s downpours are nowhere near enough to pull the state out of its intense years of drought.

A bomb cyclone is making its way across the state today, flooding homes and roads and knocking out power for hundreds of thousands of residents. Officials warned it could be the worst storm to crash in California in years — even if it’s just one in a series of storms that will pass in the space of a few weeks.

It all comes on the heels of a long dry stretch for the Golden State. 2022 marked the end of the state’s driest three-year period on record. But in a dramatic shift, California called in 2023 with wet weather – with more on the way in the next week or so.

2022 marked the end of the state’s driest three-year period on record — but in a dramatic shift, California ushered in 2023 with wet weather

The showers are expected to bring relief in the short term. About a month ago, about 85 percent of the state was in the midst of “severe drought,” according to the U.S. Drought Monitor. That has since fallen to about 71 percent. But California needs more consistent rain and snowfall to lower that number much further.

“We need these things this month, February, March, April — every month to really build the snow pack, fill that [water] reservoirs and turn them over [precipitation] shortages,” said Richard Heim, a meteorologist with the National Centers for Environmental Information. “Unfortunately, a lot of it comes too fast, too heavy.”

A powerful atmospheric river, which is pretty much a river of water vapor high in the air, reached the state yesterday. It is also dubbed the “Pineapple Express” and brings moisture from Hawaii and the tropical Pacific to the west coast of the continental US and Canada. This particular storm system has developed into a bomb cyclone, meaning it quickly intensified. This causes dangerous showers and heavy snowfall. The National Weather Service warned of “extremely heavy snowfall” of more than four inches per hour at high elevations. Meanwhile, “rapid water rises and mud and rock slides” are possible along the coast and Sacramento Valley as rain quickly accumulates at the rate of an inch per hour.

This is actually the third atmospheric river to hit the state in the past week. The latter struck over New Year’s weekend. And two more are predicted next week. While the recent rain seems to put a drastic turn on how arid the state has been in recent years, this drenched streak of wet weather is actually more of a return to normal — which is what California would expect if it weren’t for an ongoing drought.

“We have what amounts to normal winter storms, but we’re just not used to seeing normal winter storms because we haven’t had many in recent years,” said Jeanine Jones, drought manager for the California Department of Water Resources. “People have kind of forgotten what normal looks like.”

The state recently emerged from its longest drought, lasting from 2011 to 2019, since the Drought Monitor began in 2000. Looking at the region more broadly, a “mega drought” has gripped southwestern North America for more than two decades, making it the region’s driest period in at least 1,200 years.

The effects of that deficiency simply cannot be reversed in a few weeks. California also relies on snowpack for its water, especially during the spring and summer. During those dry months, melting snow fills rivers and reservoirs. Southern California gets a third of its water from reservoirs along the Colorado River, which is fed by melting snow in the Rocky Mountains. But major reservoirs like Lake Powell and Lake Mead near Hoover Dam have bottomed out in the past year.

Because it took decades for those lakes to sink so low, says Heim The edge, “it’s going to take years and years and years of above normal precipitation and snow in the Rockies to get those reservoirs back up.” To make matters worse, higher temperatures due to climate change have also led to less snowfall.

“It will take years and years and years”

“When Mother Nature turns off the tap [in mid-January]and we don’t get anything else for the rest of the winter season, the snow pack won’t be where it needs to be to provide a good spring/summer melt season,” Heim said.

Heim and Jones are both wary of a repeat of early 2022, which started out wet before hopes for a less dry year were quickly dashed. Things looked promising at first with atmospheric river storms arriving in October and December (the “water year” begins in October). But in January it dried up. The 2022 water year was ultimately defined by “ongoing extreme drought with historically dry months and a record-breaking heat wave,” according to the Department of Water Resources.

“It’s really too early to say how this year will end,” said Jones The edge. “We’ll really know around March.” That’s because California gets about 75 percent of its precipitation during the wet season that runs from November to March. It looks wet now, but the department is already preparing for dry 2023.

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