NATIONAL NEWS

EXPLAINER: How much will the rain help California’s drought?

Jan 11, 2023, 9:43 AM | Updated: 9:52 am
In an aerial view, vehicles drive along a flooded street close to the beach on January 10, 2022 in ...
In an aerial view, vehicles drive along a flooded street close to the beach on January 10, 2022 in Aptos, California. The San Francisco Bay Area and much of Northern California continue to get drenched by powerful atmospheric river events that have brought high winds and flooding rains. The storms have toppled trees, flooded roads and cut power to tens of thousands. Storms are lined up over the Pacific Ocean and are expected to bring more rain and wind through the end of the week. (Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images)
(Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images)

California has experienced a devastating, multi-year drought that’s depleted reservoirs, forced officials to plead with residents to conserve water and constrained supplies to vital farmland.

Suddenly, the state has been hit by a severe series of storms, with more expected in the coming days. The rain is soaking a state that desperately needs water, even as it takes a devastating human toll. Experts say it will help drought conditions, but it isn’t yet clear exactly how much. And the rain and snow won’t be enough to fix some of California’s long-term water problems that climate change is making worse.

“We are transitioning to a climate that is warming and more arid,” said Jeannie Jones, the interstate resources manager at California Department of Water Resources.

Here’s how the storms will affect California’s long struggle with drought:

WHERE IS THE RAIN HELPING?

California has experienced six atmospheric rivers in recent weeks and is bracing for as many as three more, with the wild weather set to continue for at least another week, Gov. Gavin Newsom said Tuesday from Santa Cruz County, where raging ocean water damaged an iconic wooden pier.

The storms have poured a tremendous amount of water on the state, especially in central California, including the San Francisco Bay Area and Sacramento Valley. Precipitation is 138% of average for this time of year, officials said. The storms have also dumped snow on the Sierra Nevada that run along California’s eastern border.

Most of the state’s reservoirs remain below average for this time of year, but some have begun to fill, especially those close to the hard-hit Sacramento region and along parts of the Sierra Nevada. The reservoirs are essential for irrigating the Central Valley, a productive stretch of farmland that grows large amounts of fruits, nuts and grains. The reservoirs also supply water to millions of people living in coastal cities.

For example, a small reservoir in Sonoma County that was at roughly half its historical average on Christmas had risen to 80% of that average by Monday.

“What we’ve got so far puts us in good shape, probably for at least the next year,” according to Alan Haynes, the hydrologist in charge of the California Nevada River Forecast Center.

Snowpack is its own type of reservoir, storing moisture that ideally melts slowly into reservoirs, supplying residents with water during the drier months of summer and fall. But now that snowpack often melts too quickly and reservoirs aren’t able to capture enough of it.

“The California system was built for a climate we don’t have any more,” said Laura Feinstein, who leads work on climate resilience and environment at SPUR, a public policy nonprofit.

WHERE COULD THE STORMS FALL SHORT?

It’s still early in the winter and it’s unclear what the next few months will bring. Last year, statewide snowpack around this time also looked promising. But a few warm, dry months followed, and when snowpack was supposed to peak in early April, it was just 38% of the historic average.

“We are not out of the drought yet,” said Feinstein.

Plus, the storms haven’t dropped as much water on northern California. A reservoir at Lake Shasta that was at 55% of its historical average on Christmas had risen to 67% by Monday — an improvement, but still well below historical averages due to years of water scarcity, according to Haynes.

The atmospheric rivers aren’t striking everywhere. They move around “like a garden hose if you are spraying it across the yard,” said David Gochis, an expert in how water affects the weather at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colorado.

“Those biggest reservoirs are just so massive it is probably going to take awhile for them to fill,” he said. For some of the biggest, most crucial reservoirs, it may take take five or six such drenchings, he said.

David Novak, director of the National Weather’s Service’s Weather Prediction Center, says the atmospheric rivers still to come will likely be weaker. The problem is the already wet ground won’t be able to absorb much more water, creating problems with runoff. In about 10 days, weather patterns may shift and finally “turn off the spigot,” he said.

And the Colorado River, a major source of water for Southern California, has also been stricken by drought that has depleted major reservoirs on that river. The recent storms won’t fix that problem.

WHAT ABOUT LONG-TERM ISSUES LIKE CLIMATE CHANGE?

Many farmers in California pump water from underground, with the enormous amounts pulled from aquifers depleting groundwater. Some wells are running dry. It is an entrenched problem and it isn’t going to be solved by a short-term series of storms, experts said.

“Our management of land has prevented it from being recharged very well,” said Mike Antos, a watershed specialist at Stantec, a consulting company. He says the Central Valley needs more places for water flows to seep down and replenish aquifers.

And California is facing a long-term problem. Although there have been some wet years mixed in, California’s drought has been going on for roughly two decades. Climate change is creating drier, hotter conditions. Water evaporates faster. California officials predict there will be less water in the state’s future.

“So in that big picture, this series of storms really is kind of just a drop in the bucket,” Jones said.

___

The Associated Press receives support from the Walton Family Foundation for coverage of water and environmental policy. The AP is solely responsible for all content. For all of AP’s environmental coverage, visit https://apnews.com/hub/climate-and-environment

___

Associated Press writers Seth Borenstein in Denver, Kathleen Ronayne in Sacramento and Christopher Weber in Los Angeles contributed.

KSL 5 TV Live

Top Stories

National News

President Joe Biden delivers the State of the Union address to a joint session of Congress at the C...
Zeke Miller, Seung Min Kim and Lisa Mascaro, Associated Press

Biden in State of Union exhorts Congress: ‘Finish the job’

President Joe Biden has exhorted Republicans in his State of the Union address to work with him to “finish the job” of rebuilding the economy and uniting the nation.
14 hours ago
Rep. George Santos, R-N.Y., Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., and other Republicans gather in the House Cham...
Lisa Mascaro and Mary Clare Jalonick, Associated Press

GOP on GOP: Romney scolds Santos, ‘You don’t belong here’

Congressman George Santos' presence at the center aisle for Tuesday night's speech was met with a stern rebuke from a fellow Republican, Sen. Mitt Romney of Utah.
14 hours ago
SANTA FE, NEW MEXICO - OCTOBER 22: A general view shows a locked gate at the entrance to the Bonanz...
Associated Press

Alec Baldwin wants prosecutor in on-set death case dropped

Defense attorneys for actor Alec Baldwin are seeking to disqualify the special prosecutor in the case against him stemming from the fatal shooting of a cinematographer on a New Mexico film set.
14 hours ago
FILE: Powerball and Mega Millions lottery tickets are displayed on January 3, 2018 in San Anselmo, ...
Associated Press

Lucky player in Seattle suburb wins $754.6M Powerball prize

A single winning ticket for a $754.6 million Powerball jackpot was sold at a department store in a Seattle suburb, Washington state lottery officials said Tuesday.
2 days ago
(From left) Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling are pictured here in 2016's "La La Land." (Dale Robinette/L...
Alli Rosenbloom

Musical adaptation of ‘La La Land’ is dancing its way to Broadway

Get your dancing shoes ready, because "La La Land" is coming to Broadway.
2 days ago
Sailors assigned to Explosive Ordnance Disposal Group 2 recover debris from a suspected Chinese sur...
Haley Britzky

US Navy releases photos of Chinese spy balloon recovery effort

The U.S. Navy released photos Tuesday of its recovery effort of a suspected Chinese spy balloon, which U.S. fighter jets shot down over the Atlantic Ocean on Saturday.
2 days ago

Sponsored Articles

vintage photo of lighting showroom featuring chandeliers, lamps, wall lights and mirrors...
Lighting Design

History of Lighting Design | Over 25 Years of Providing Utah With the Latest Trends and Styles

Read about the history of Lighting Design, a family-owned and operated business that paved the way for the lighting industry in Utah.
Fiber Optical cables connected to an optic ports and Network cables connected to ethernet ports...
Brian Huston, CE and Anthony Perkins, BICSI

Why Every Business Needs a Structured Cabling System

A structured cabling system benefits businesses by giving you faster processing speeds and making your network more efficient and reliable.
notebook with password notes highlighted...
PC Laptops

How to Create Strong Passwords You Can Actually Remember

Learn how you can create strong passwords that are actually easy to remember! In a short time you can create new ones in seconds.
house with for rent sign posted...
Chase Harrington, president and COO of Entrata

Top 5 Reasons You May Want to Consider Apartment Life Over Owning a Home

There are many benefits of renting that can be overshadowed by the allure of buying a home. Here are five reasons why renting might be right for you.
Festive kitchen in Christmas decorations. Christmas dining room....
Lighting Design

6 Holiday Decor Trends to Try in 2022

We've rounded out the top 6 holiday decor trends for 2022 so you can be ahead of the game before you start shopping. 
Happy diverse college or university students are having fun on their graduation day...
BYU MBA at the Marriott School of Business

How to Choose What MBA Program is Right for You: Take this Quiz Before You Apply!

Wondering what MBA program is right for you? Take this quiz before you apply to see if it will help you meet your goals.
EXPLAINER: How much will the rain help California’s drought?