California’s drought has eased, but the state isn’t out of the woods yet

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

The agency predicts greater improvement through the spring, with even more regions potentially seeing an end to their drought conditions. Even so, California’s recovery will be uneven and it will take years to replenish some crucial water sources. And as recent storms have already shown, the state will continue to face new flooding hazards.

“Climate change brings both wet and dry extremes”

“Climate change is driving both wet and dry extremes, as illustrated by NOAA observations and data that illuminate these seasonal outlooks,” NOAA Administrator Rick Spinrad said in a statement.

Maps from the US Drought Monitor show the Golden State’s dramatic shift from arid to soggy in just a few months. By the end of December, around the start of the winter season, 100% of the state was at least “abnormally dry.”

More than a third of California was colored bright red to show “extreme drought” conditions in the December 27 map on the left side of the slider below. On this week’s updated drought map, on the right side of the slider, there is no red to be found. Now just over half the state is “abnormally dry.”

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

Record snowfall has been a feature of the season, which is also helping to alleviate the drought. The state relies on snowmelt to fill rivers and reservoirs during dry seasons. The amount of water trapped in snowpack across the state was 190% of average in early March, according to a recent Department of Water Resources (DWR) assessment.

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

More rain, coupled with melting snowpack, puts the state at risk for additional flooding this spring, NOAA says in its outlook. It’s too early to tell what the incredibly wet winter will mean for California wildfires this year, state climatologist Michael Anderson said during a DWR briefing yesterday. This depends on many factors, including how quickly the snowpack melts, how quickly the landscape dries out, and when plants grow in the spring and later dry out.

California is coming off “three years of extraordinary drought, right in our rearview mirror,” Anderson said. In the future, water scarcity will always be a problem. The state’s groundwater basins, made up of underground aquifers, will need more than one rainy season to replenish them.

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

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


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