Jan 12, 2017

Call it the Southern California drought. Rain and snow end Northern California water woes

Los Angeles, CA
Joseph Serna, Matt Stevens
Los Angeles Times

What was once a statewide drought this week became a Southern California drought.

A week of powerful storms has significantly eased the state’s water shortage, pulling nearly all of Northern California out of drought conditions, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor.

The  report underscores what experts have been saying for several months. As a series of storms have hit Northern California this winter, the drought picture there is improving, but water supply remains a concern in Southern California and the Central Valley.

More than 40% of the state is no longer in a drought, according to the data released Thursday.

Perhaps most striking, a giant swath of the state was declared to have no signs of abnormal dryness at all. The percentage of the state that fell into that category nearly doubled from 18% last week to almost 35% after the storm. 

Still, the drought monitor’s map and its array of colors — from white to dark red — provide a stark illustration of the disparity between hydrologic conditions in the north and south.

Storms drenched the San Francisco Bay Area and created blizzard conditions in parts of the Sierra Nevada over the last week. They dramatically boosted the Sierra snowpack — a key source of water for California — to 161% of normal and helped rectify the state’s water shortage.

But the weather systems also carved a path of destruction. The storms likely caused at least four deaths. 

Since Oct. 1, total precipitation in the Sierra Nevada has been soaring at rates similar to the wettest winters in the modern record: 1982-83 in the northern and central Sierra and 1968-69 in the southern Sierra.

Lake Shasta, the state’s largest reservoir and a major source of water for San Joaquin Valley agriculture, is 82% full and releasing water to create more storage room. Oroville, which supplies the State Water Project, is 77% full and also making releases. 

At present, conditions are considered normal in almost all of the state north of the Bay Area, according to the new federal drought report. (Authors use measurements of climatic, hydrologic and soil conditions and consider reported impacts and observations to create the map.)

Thursday’s assessment was less rosy for Southern California. 

Los Angeles and Orange counties, along with much of Central California, are locked in what officials classify as “extreme drought” — or worse.

Chunks of Ventura and Santa Barbara counties remain in “exceptional drought.”

Lake Cachuma, a barometer of Santa Barbara’s severe water shortage, has received relatively meager rainfall since the start of the month, and as of Thursday, it was filled to only about 11% of its historical average.

Officials said it held only a bit more than 8% of its capacity.


Deven Upadhyay, the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California’s water resource manager, echoed many state water officials when he told The Times that it was too early to say the drought is over.

“Later this year, we may be able to say that we’ve really turned the tide,” he said earlier this week. “But we’re not there yet.”