Winter Weather’s Upside? Half of California Now Free From Drought

According to data from the U.S. Drought Monitor, about 49 percent of the state is still in moderate or severe drought, and 17 per cent is free entirely

The rare sheets of rain and snow periodically emerging this winter have proven to be the deus ex machina for ending the protracted drought for half of California. Just three months ago, almost the entire state was in drought—with some areas at “extreme” levels—and the end seemed hopeless.

Now, according to data from the U.S. Drought Monitor, there is no more “extreme or “exceptional” drought in California. About 49 percent of the state is still in moderate or severe drought, and 17 percent is free of drought entirely, as well as a condition called abnormal dryness; the rest of the state is abnormally dry.

Helping dampen the landscape and build up the Sierra Nevada snowpack were the deluge of precipitation from the vigorous storms California has seen in 2023, with 9 atmospheric rivers in 3 weeks, as a representative from the Department of Water Resources said on a Friday briefing.

“Clearly the amount of water that’s fallen this year has greatly alleviated the drought,” Daniel Swain, a climate scientist at the University of California, Los Angeles, told the Associated Press. “It has not ended the drought completely but we’re in a very different place than we were a year ago.”

While statewide precipitation is now 124 percent of average, according to data presented Friday, there were still major deficits in the largest reservoirs, like the Colorado River, and many groundwater basins. The nagging problem of low groundwater levels remains, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor data.

“Where we’re not getting a lot of recovery is in groundwater,” said Jeanine Jones of the DWR. “Because it simply takes a long time [to recover] and it takes a while for the data to trickle in.”

The DWR conducted its third snow survey of the season Friday at the Phillips Station, capturing a snow water equivalent that is 177 percent of the average. Its statewide average, determined by 130 electronic sensors placed throughout the state, is 190 percent of the average. The snow water equivalent measures the amount of water contained in a snowpack.

“Thankfully the recent storms combined with the January atmospheric rivers have contributed to an above-average snowpack that will help fill some of the state’s reservoirs and maximize groundwater recharge efforts,” said DWR Director Karla Nemeth, in a statement. Nemeth also warned that the snow water equivalent is not distributed equally, and the Northern Sierra, home to some of the state’s largest reservoirs, was falling behind the rest of the region.

She also echoed Jeanine Jones on the slow recovery of groundwater: “It will also take more than one good year to begin recovery of the state’s groundwater basins.”

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