Atmospheric rivers won’t end California’s drought

Estimated cumulative rainfall

Dec. 26, 2022 - Jan. 14, as of 12 p.m. PST, in inches

6

12

24

36

Crescent

City

OREGON

CALIFORNIA

NEVADA

L. Shasta

Redding

Chico

Ukiah

L. Oroville

Reno

Folsom L.

Sacramento

San Francisco

San Jose

Monterey

Fresno

San Luis Obispo

Pacific

Ocean

Santa Barbara

100 MILES

Note: Precipitation in Sierra Nevada

mountains is primarily snow, liquid water equivalent.

Los Angeles

Sources: NOAA

Estimated cumulative rainfall

Dec. 26 - Jan. 14, as of 12 p.m. PST, in inches

6

12

24

36

OREGON

CALIFORNIA

NEVADA

L. Shasta

Redding

L. Oroville

Ukiah

Reno

Sacramento

Folsom L.

San Fran.

San Jose

Monterey

Fresno

San Luis Obispo

Pacific

Ocean

Santa Barbara

Los Angeles

50 MILES

Note: Precipitation in Sierra Nevada

mountains is primarily snow, liquid water equivalent.

Sources: NOAA

Estimated cumulative rainfall

Dec. 26, 2022 - Jan. 14, as of 12 p.m. PST, in inches

6

12

24

36

OREGON

CALIF.

NEV.

L. Shasta

Redding

L. Oroville

Ukiah

Reno

Sacramento

Folsom L.

San Fran.

San Jose

Monterey

Fresno

Pacific

Ocean

San Luis Obispo

Santa Barbara

50 MILES

Los Angeles

Note: Precipitation in Sierra Nevada

mountains is primarily snow,

liquid water equivalent.

Sources: NOAA

Evacuation orders were issued in Santa Barbara as heavy rains prompted flooding, road closures and outages Monday. The conditions are a sample of the ongoing damage to the waterlogged California that’s seen week after week of atmospheric rivers since Dec. 26, in what amounts to an average of 8.61 inches of precipitation. While across the state, reservoirs are filling up and the Sierra Madre snowpack is piling high, this much rain will not sate California’s drought.

Even after six atmospheric river-driven storms, a majority of the state is still in a drought that began three years ago. 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.

Daily rainfall

Dec. 26 - Jan. 14, as of 3 p.m., in inches of rain or liquid water-equivalent snow

0

3

6

12

M

T

W

T

F

S

Dec. 26

27

28

29

30

31

S

2

3

4

5

6

7

Jan. 1

9

10

11

12

13

14

8

Daily rainfall

Dec. 26 - Jan. 14, as of 3 p.m., in inches of rain or liquid water-equivalent snow

0

3

6

12

M

T

W

T

F

S

Dec. 26

27

28

29

30

31

S

2

3

4

5

6

7

Jan. 1

9

10

11

12

13

14

8

Daily rainfall

Dec. 26 - Jan. 14, as of 3 p.m., in inches of rain or liquid water-equivalent snow

0

3

6

12

MON.

TUES.

WED.

THUR.

FRI.

SAT.

Dec. 26

27

28

29

30

31

SUN.

2

3

4

5

6

7

Jan. 1

9

10

11

12

13

8

14

In the 2021–22 rainy season, bomb cyclones from the Pacific brought an end to the wildfire season with their moisture-rich pressure systems. Snowpack along the eastern parts of the state rose to higher than average levels. Then January 2022 came, and that was the end of the rain. What water remained dried up rapidly in a spring heat wave, intensifying the drought.

With three more atmospheric rivers on the horizon for California, the question is whether 2023 will face a similar dry spell.

Research into climate’s role in the extreme wet and dry conditions last season is part of the work by Daniel McEvoy at the Desert Research Institute in Nevada. A recent study showed how reduced snowpacks and extreme temperatures in the spring intensified the drought heading into the summer months.

McEvoy puts it this way: “Let’s say this wet year continues all the way to March and we have a 200 percent average snowpack. … That might feel like the drought is as almost over — but that’s not always the case simply because we’re having warmer summers that are drying things out much faster.” Drought is a long-term trend California faces. Should we think about it in the same ways we think about the Colorado River’s historic drought? That is a question worth considering, McEvoy says.

Usually snowpack means bankable water sources for nearby counties that depend on it in the warmer parts of the year. But when the land is persistently dry, runoff from melting ice and snow goes to dampening the soil first before trickling down to reservoirs. Sudden high heat evaporates the snow, too, moving it away from the area through the atmosphere.

How storms impact the water cycle in California

Storms boost snowpack in the mountains.

Reservoir

Dams

During the rainy season, reservoirs may become full and must release water to prepare for the next storm.

Farmland

Flood-prevention infrastructure eliminated the river's natural floodplains, making it difficult for groundwater to replenish.

Infiltration

Aquifer

Ocean

How storms impact the water cycle in California

Storms boost snowpack in the mountains.

Reservoir

Dams

During the rainy season, reservoirs may become full and must release water to prepare for the next storm.

Farmland

Flood-prevention infrastructure eliminated the river's natural floodplains, making it difficult for groundwater to replenish.

Infiltration

Aquifer

Ocean

How storms impact the water cycle in California

Storms boost snowpack in the mountains.

Reservoir

Dams

During the rainy season, reservoirs may become full and must release water to prepare for the next storm.

Farmland

Flood-prevention infrastructure eliminated the river's natural floodplains, making it difficult for groundwater to replenish.

Infiltration

Aquifer

Ocean

California’s water supply in periods of drought relies heavily on stored water in reservoirs, underground, and across state lines. Not all rainwater makes it, though, to collection.

Jeanine Jones, the interstate resources manager at the California Department of Water Resources, explains that “on average in California, we get about 200 million acre feet a year of precipitation. But that 200 million acre feet only amounts to 70-something million acre feet of runoff on average.” Jones recognizes that we almost never get an average year, but the idea is that the precipitation is lost to evaporation, plants and soil.

In an average year, the residents and businesses use up roughly a quarter of reservoir water in the dry months. Since the beginning of the 2020 drought, overall reservoir levels have declined by a third. Recent rainfalls improved the situation somewhat, but the rain comes in at such a rapid rate that reservoirs small and large must release water to mitigate flooding. Rain that is not making it to capture in the first place is behind the flooding rivers and towns along the Pacific coast.

It also matters where these atmospheric river storms are “aimed,” says Alison Bridger, department chair of meteorology and climate science at San Jose State University. In an email, Bridger says she has been watching Lake Shasta’s levels gain, but they are still sitting below historical averages. “The storms we’ve experienced since Boxing Day have mostly been aimed at ‘central’ California. … What would be good is if the next few storms were more focused on northern CA.” It would be nice if the state’s largest reservoir got some of these flooding rainwaters.

Smaller reservoirs are filling up,

but California’s largest ones still need

more runoff

Runoff from the latest storms are

replenishing the state’s water supply.

But the state’s largest reservoirs are still

below historical average. The region

depends on reservoirs for its water supply

as months without precipitation are getting

longer and drier.

Lake Shasta

Reservoir level in acre feet

5 million

Total capacity: 4,552,000

4

Historical

average

3

Current water year

Jan. 12

2,069,377

2

Last year

1

Nov.

Jan.

Mar.

May

July

Sept.

Water year (Oct. 1-Sept. 30)

Lake Oroville

Reservoir level in acre feet

4 million

Total capacity: 3,537,577

3

Historical

average

Jan. 12

2

1,790,095

Last year

1

Nov.

Jan.

Mar.

May.

July

Sept.

Water year (Oct. 1-Sept. 30)

Folsom Lake

Reservoir level in acre feet

2 million

Current water year

Jan. 12

Total capacity:

977,000

412,765

1

Last year

Historical

average

Nov.

Jan.

Mar.

May

July

Sept.

Water year (Oct. 1-Sept. 30)

Source: California Depart. of Water Resources

Smaller reservoirs are filling up, but California’s

largest ones still need more runoff

Runoff from the latest storms are replenishing the

state’s water supply. But the state’s largest reservoirs

are still below historical average. The region depends

on reservoirs for its water supply as months

without precipitation are getting longer and drier.

Lake Shasta

Reservoir level in acre feet

5 million

Total capacity: 4,552,000

4

Historical

average

3

Current water year

Jan. 12

2,069,377

2

Last year

1

Nov.

Jan.

Mar.

May

July

Sept.

Water year (Oct. 1-Sept. 30)

Lake Oroville

Reservoir level in acre feet

4 million

Total capacity: 3,537,577

3

Historical

average

Jan. 12

2

1,790,095

Last year

1

Nov.

Jan.

Mar.

May.

July

Sept.

Water year (Oct. 1-Sept. 30)

Folsom Lake

Reservoir level in acre feet

2 million

Current water year

Jan. 12

Total capacity:

977,000

412,765

1

Last year

Historical

average

Nov.

Jan.

Mar.

May

July

Sept.

Water year (Oct. 1-Sept. 30)

Source: California Department of Water Resources

Smaller reservoirs are filling up, but California’s largest ones still need more runoff

Runoff from the latest storms are replenishing the state’s water supply. But the state’s largest reservoirs

are still below historical average. The region depends on reservoirs for its water supply as months

without precipitation are getting longer and drier.

Lake Shasta

Reservoir level in acre feet

Lake Oroville

Reservoir level in acre feet

Folsom Lake

Reservoir level in acre feet

5 million

Total capacity: 4,552,000

4

Total capacity: 3,537,577

3

Current water year:

Current water year:

Jan. 12

Jan. 12

Jan. 12

1,790,095

412,765

2,069,377

2

Last year

Last year

Total capacity:

977,000

1

Last year

Historical average

Nov.

Jan.

Mar.

May.

July

Sept.

Nov.

Jan.

Mar.

May

July

Sept.

Nov.

Jan.

Mar.

May

July

Sept.

Water year (Oct. 1-Sept. 30)

Source: California Department of Water Resources

As with snowpack, we won’t know how much these gains will improve water resources until March or April, when water demand begins drawing from local reservoirs again. In previous years, large reservoirs like Lake Shasta and Lake Oroville see a 30 percent draw on their levels. The rains in these past few weeks improved levels to 44 percent and 49 percent of their total capacity, respectively.

Jones says, “If you think about what happened last year, we were in great shape at the start of the new year … and then everything completely shut down for the rest of the season. … But we’re certainly not out of the woods yet by any means.” If the summer months behave like previous ones, Californians will be right back where they started: in a water deficit.

Marty Ralph, director of the Center for Western Weather and Water Extremes, notes that the Oroville and Shasta reservoirs are still below their average for this time of year, but he is encouraged by the snowpack along the Sierras. “It’s a different story, of course, if [the snow] shuts down for the rest of the winter,” he says. California’s water management system is designed with awareness that snow in the mountains is a part of supply that acts as a natural reservoir.

Depending on one extreme weather event of heavy rain and inundation to counteract the shorter rain season, warmer springs and longer wildfire seasons is not the solution the multifaceted ways the Southwest faces climate change-driven megadroughts. Persistent drought, whether briefly paused by atmospheric rivers, is a function of a world now shaped by climate change.

“What happens between now and the summer is very important,” Ralph says.

While improving water capture is certainly an adaptation that’s possible, it is a human-centered solution to man-made problems. One dimension of the California drought is how much of this runoff can be stored for residents and agriculture. The other is how much is left for the land.

correction

An earlier version of this article incorrectly calculated the normal (average) snow water equivalent (SWE) as a percent of April in California’s snowpack line chart. The chart has been corrected to show normal as the average of measured SWE where it reaches 100 percent on April 1. Also, an earlier version of this article incorrectly said a study by Daniel McEvoy and Benjamin J. Hatchett published in Environmental Research Letters included impacts from climate change. The study was on impacts from spring snowpacks and extreme temperatures. The article has been corrected.

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