The Golden State is being drenched this week by heavy rains and snow driven by a powerful El Niño. But quenching a years-long thirst takes more than a few storms.
Rain and snow have deluged much of California this week, prompting questions about whether the state could dig out of its four-year drought, the worst in recorded history. But certain conditions need to converge on the state before its water crisis ends.
A strong El Niño in the Pacific has spurred storms that have soaked California, leading to some improvement at the state’s reservoirs, which stood at 22 to 55 percent of their historical averages on December 31. More importantly, the snowpack in the Sierra Nevada, which had reached a 500-year-low, is already 103% of average for this time of year.
The Sierra snowpack is critical to the state, since much of the water used by Californians throughout the year comes from the slow melting of this snow in the spring.
There is a good chance that if everything goes right over the next four months we could end up with good reservoir recovery. We need much better than average snowpack this year for complete reservoir recovery, and so far we are encouraged.
Still, for a true end to the drought, these factors need to align:
1. Four More Months! (of Storms)
The pace of that snow needs to continue during much of the next four months, the region’s wet season. So far, the forecasts look encouraging—thanks to the strong El Niño—but the weather through March could shift.
2. Storms in the Right Place
It’s not just the amount of moisture that falls, it also needs to be in the right place—i.e., over the mountains. It can’t be just along the coast, where too much will wash into the sea. The storms also can’t get shunted to the north.
That’s exactly what happened last year, when a persistent “ridge” of high pressure blocked storms from hitting California. So far this year that hasn’t been a problem.
3. Below-Freezing Temperatures in the Mountains
Another El Niño year, 1983, happened to be a relatively cold year, and the Sierra snowpack hit record levels. However, in the 1997 El Niño, temperatures were higher, and much of the precipitation fell as rain rather than snow. Much of that water flowed into the ocean via flood control channels, and the resulting snowpack was much smaller, leaving less runoff to fill California’s reservoirs in the spring.