Storm vs. Drought: After weeks of flooding, how can CA still be in drought?

Climate scientists who have studied the Southwest largely agree that the vast region — which includes Southern California — has been in drought almost since the beginning of the 21st century. It’s a historic megadrought — meaning a drought of twenty years or more — with the driest soils in the West in at least 1200 years.

Yet here in 2023, after at least six atmospheric rivers hitting the state since the beginning of the new year, people naturally ask:

Will these storms end the drought?

The media rushes to answer the hopeful question, and virtually without exception reporters end up at the same uncomfortable conclusion. Which is that the water coming into the the reservoirs will help, and if the snowpack builds through the winter into spring, that will help even more but no, the drought in California is not really over. Maybe because it wasn’t really a lack-of-rain drought in the first place.


KCLU: Lance Orozco:

Ventura is at 121% of average rainfall for this time of year, Ojai 131%, Santa Barbara 165%, and Lompoc is at a whopping 221%. The numbers sound impressive. But, in 2022 we were also well above average for the start of the New Year. Then, we had the driest January, February, and March on record.

“We went bone dry…we ended up below normal (for the rainfall year),” said Patzert. “I don’t want to see any headlines about this being a drought buster.”

“People are getting it in their mind we’re in the rainy season, getting some rain, we can kind of let our foot off the gas a little bit,” said Mike McNutt, who is a spokesman for the Las Virgenes Municipal Water District. It serves part of the Conejo Valley.

“It’s human nature. But, you just can’t make the assumption that because we’re having some rain, that it’s pulling us out of a historic drought…because it is not,” said McNutt.

Numerous major publications have written the state version of this story. They’ve all reached pretty much the same conclusion.

The BBC:

Why California’s Storm is unlikely to reverse its drought

The AP:

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

Key paragraph:

“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.”

Reuters chimes in:

On Dec. 14, the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California declared a drought emergency for all 19 million people in the region. A few weeks later, the state was underwater with major flooding.

Despite a deluge that by one estimate has been expected to dump more than 20 trillion gallons (80 trillion liters), the state’s major reservoirs remain well below their historic average. The largest reservoirs, at Shasta and Oroville, are still at 42% and 47% of capacity, according to state data.

Its my sense that these stories featuring interviews with experts and current reservoir numbers aren’t convincing to most people living through floods, so I appreciate the Washington Post making an attempt to provide a detailed scientific explanation, trying to bring scientific depth and detail to the discussion. The explainer, called “Atmospheric Rivers won’t end California’s Drought,” by a team of reporters, frames the question around this statement:

“Why rain alone doesn’t solve dry conditions has much to do with what happens to that rain once it falls and how climate change is disrupting that cycle.”

The story quotes researcher Daniel McEvoy, who recently published a study on how spring heat waves ate into the Western snowpack in the 21st century. His timeline indicates that the Western snowpack no longer can be depended on. Drought looks increasingly like the norm for the state as a whole.

The non-profit media outlet CalMatters helpfully publishes a data-rich drought tracker, that follows various indices for water — such as reservoir storage, number of wells at their low points, and the amount of the state in drought, and shows the impacts at a glance. I thought this chart — showing the amount of water stored in state reservoirs, versus the onset of statewide drought — made the crucial point about the prevalence of drought from the standpoint of water stored.

Despite an estimated 20+ trillion gallons of water pouring down on the state in the last couple of weeks, we in California are still in statewide drought. Believe it or not.

To be fair, it’s true that some of our smaller reservoirs around the state are filled or have filled rapidly (as for example, in Santa Barbara and in Marin county). A detailed story in the San Jose Mercury News by Paul Rogers makes the point:

“Since Dec. 1, California’s 154 largest reservoirs have gone from 67% of their historical average capacity to 84%, adding roughly 4.7 million acre feet of water in six weeks — or enough for the annual consumption of 23 million people.

Shasta, the state’s largest reservoir at 35 miles long, has risen 37 feet since Dec. 1. The second largest, Oroville, in Butte County, has risen 97 feet, barely a year after state officials shut off the hydroelectric turbines in its dam for the first time in its 50-year history because of extremely low water levels.

“We’re all ecstatic,” said Lesley Nickelson, owner of Oroville Cycle, a store that sells boating and motorcycle equipment a few miles from Oroville Dam. “The marina has been way down at the bottom of a dirt hill for the past few years. People haven’t been going out on the lake. Now the boat ramps are underwater again. People are going back.'”

To this observer it’s time for a story or study that looks drills down into the short-term (the next year or two or three) versus the long-term, to see how much the deluge will stem the decades-long drying trend in California. But in the meantime, this morning the NYTimes publishes a story with interactive graphs that makes the by-now-familiar point that no, the drought in California is not over. They conclude:

“California’s recent spate of storms will not reverse three years that have been the state’s driest on record. It’s taken multiple years to get to the current state of persistent drought, said Gus Goodbody, a hydrologist at the United States Department of Agriculture’s National Water and Climate Center. “It’s going to be hard for a single season to counteract that.'”

Published by Kit Stolz

I'm a freelance reporter and writer based in Ventura County.

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