Will atmospheric rivers end California’s drought?

Weather

A man wades through a flooded street in the Rio Del Mar neighborhood of Aptos, Calif., Monday, Jan. 9, 2023. (AP Photo/Nic Coury)

(NewsNation) — The rains that have deluged California are helping to fill up reservoirs, but aren’t necessarily going to make that much of a dent in the state’s decades-long drought.

The storms, which caused widespread flooding and mudslides, have made a dent in extreme drought, the most severe type of drought. Since the storms began, it’s come down to 0.32%, from 27.1%. Severe drought has also diminished, from 71% to 46%.

But the atmospheric rivers, which bring rain and snow, won’t necessarily make as long term difference.

The storms have been concentrated in central California, and while some are benefitting from the rain, that benefit isn’t evenly spread across the state.

For example, a small reservoir in Sonoma County that was at roughly half its historical average on Christmas had risen to 80% of that average by Monday. Meanwhile, inn Northern California, the state’s largest reservoir at Lake Shasta that was at 55% of its historical average on Christmas had risen to 70% by Tuesday — an improvement, but still well below historical averages due to years of water scarcity.

In addition to reservoirs, California also relies on snowpack for water.

Snowpack is its own type of reservoir, storing moisture that ideally melts slowly into reservoirs, supplying residents with water during the drier months of summer and fall. But now that snowpack often melts too quickly and reservoirs aren’t able to capture enough of it.

“The California system was built for a climate we don’t have any more,” said Laura Feinstein, who leads work on climate resilience and environment at SPUR, a public policy nonprofit.

That isn’t going to be changed by the wave of storms. On top of that, California gets water from sources outside the state, like the Colorado River, as well as from underground aquifers, some of which are running dry.

California is set to see more storms in the coming week, although they are not forecast to be as intense as the previous wave.

David Novak, director of the National Weather’s Service’s Weather Prediction Center, says the atmospheric rivers still to come will likely be weaker. The problem is the already wet ground won’t be able to absorb much more water, creating problems with runoff. In about 10 days, weather patterns may shift and finally “turn off the spigot,” he said.

The Associated Press contributed to this report

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