California experienced the three driest years in its history from 2020 to 2022. Have the rain and snow of early 2023 finally brought this historic drought to an end? Yes… and no.
California’s recent atmospheric rivers have brought heavy rain and snow, which have caused catastrophic flooding. Atmospheric rivers are relatively narrow bands in the atmosphere that carry moisture from the tropics. A large atmospheric river can carry moisture equivalent to the flow of the Mississippi River.
When these “sky rivers” make landfall, all of that moisture is unleashed. This has played out in seemingly endless fashion in California. Since December, the state has been hit with 12-14 atmospheric rivers. The precipitation fell as torrential rain in lower elevations, while the state’s mountains were pounded with heavy snow. Parts of the Sierra Nevada saw 55 feet of snow! But how has all this moisture affected California’s drought?
Drought Conditions Are Easing
The onslaught of the rain and snow has helped to significantly decrease drought conditions in much of the state. Just 8.5% of California is still experiencing severe drought. That measurement was at 33% only a month ago. California reservoirs are filling up, giving residents hope this nightmarish drought is finally ending.
There are other encouraging signs, as well. For example, the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California recently canceled emergency water restrictions that affected seven million customers. The restrictions had been in place since June 2022.
However, even though restrictions have been relaxed, One Water Committee Chair Tracy Quinn reminded Californians that continued conservation is still needed, saying, “Southern California remains in a water supply deficit. The more efficiently we all use water today, the more we can keep in storage for a future dry year.”
An Underground Drought Remains
While the positive trends in drought reduction should not be minimized, there are still serious challenges facing the state’s water supply. Even with all the precipitation in recent months, the state is still facing a drought beneath the earth’s surface.
When the rain and snow stopped, underground aquifers were used to supply water to the state’s 39+ million residents. Up to 60% of the state’s water supply came from groundwater during the elongated drought. Some groundwater wells are at the lowest levels ever seen.
Much of California saw a severe or even exceptional drought in the mid-2010s. Groundwater was used to supply the state through those drought years, as well as even earlier 21st-century droughts. Quite simply, the amount of groundwater withdrawal has significantly exceeded the amount of groundwater replenishment for many years in California.
The precipitation thus far in 2023 has come in deluges that were so furious that much of the water ran off into rivers rather than being absorbed into the ground. So, while the surface was flooding, the groundwater drought continued.
Pockets of Drought Persist
Also, not all of California is breaking free of drought conditions at the surface, either. Northeast California is still quite dry. All of Modoc County, along with parts of Siskiyou and Lassen Counties, are still experiencing severe drought conditions. Portions of Inyo and San Bernardino counties in southeast California are also still in a severe drought.
Along with those pockets of severe drought, over half of the entire state is still considered abnormally dry. The last three years of drought were so severe that the effects are still seen even after massive precipitation over the last few months.
Spring Looks to Bring Good News
The spring outlook is positive for a state eager to bust out of a three-year drought. Meteorologists have declared La Niña is over. This pattern has brought extremely dry conditions to California for the last few years. A period of transition from La Niña to El Niño is expected to last into the summer, with the transition to the much wetter El Niño pattern after that. As long as the rains don’t come as fast and furious as the precipitation of the last several months, this is good news for drought-weary Californians.
Experts warn that the wild swings of California weather are only going to continue, or possibly worsen, with the changing climate. As Californians enjoy the relief that seems to be coming with the transition from La Niña to El Niño, it’s important to remember that another drought seems inevitable. Conservation practices during El Niño rains can help groundwater replenish, which will be essential during the next drought.
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