Soaked by heavy rains in recent weeks, the biggest Sierra snowpack in 30 years and flooding from a parade of atmospheric river storms in January, the majority of California is no longer in a drought, federal officials reported Thursday.
Overall, 49.1% of California can be classified as in a drought, a dramatic drop from 84.6% last week, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor, a weekly report issued by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the University of Nebraska.
That’s the lowest percentage in more than three years when 48.2% of the state was in a drought in July 2020, according to the report, which is based on rainfall totals, reservoir levels, snowpack, soil moisture and other measures.
“The Pacific weather systems of this week and last week added to copious precipitation that has been received from atmospheric rivers since December 2022, especially over California,” wrote Richard Heim, a meteorologist with NOAA.
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Tents at Curry Village are covered with snow in Yosemite National Park, Calif., Tuesday, Feb. 28, 2023. The park, closed since Saturday because of heavy, blinding snow, postponed its planned Thursday, March 2, 2023, reopening indefinitely. (National Park Service via AP)
Accumulated snow is seen around this sign in Pollock Pines at an El Dorado County Fire Station in El Dorado County March 2, 2023. (Andrew Innerarity / California Department of Water Resources)
State Route 138 winds through snow-covered trees near Hesperia, Calif., Wednesday, March 1, 2023. Tremendous rains and snowfall since late last year have freed half of California from drought, but low groundwater levels remain a persistent problem, U.S. Drought Monitor data showed Thursday, March 2. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)
In this photo provided by the National Park Service, a structure at Yosemite Falls in Yosemite National Park, Calif., is covered in snow Tuesday, Feb. 28, 2023. Yosemite National Park, closed since Saturday because of heavy, blinding snow, postponed its planned Thursday, March 2, 2023, reopening indefinitely. (National Park Service via AP)
Accumulated snow is seen on a vehicle in this Pollock Pines parking lot in El Dorado County. This image is shown in advance of the Department of Water Resources’ Snow Survey scheduled for Phillips Station in the Sierra Nevada Mountains on March 3, 2023 . (Photo Taken March 1, 2023) Andrew Innerarity / California Department of Water Resources FOR EDITORIAL USE ONLY
Folks take to the streets of Nevada City during the recent winter snow storm in the Sierra Nevada, Feb. 24, 2023. (Elias Funez/The Union via AP)
A portion of the South Fork of the American River is seen running alongside. this section of US Highway 50 in El Dorado County. This image is shown in advance of the Department of Water Resources’ Snow Survey scheduled for Phillips Station in the Sierra Nevada Mountains on March 3, 2023 . (Photo Taken March 1, 2023) Andrew Innerarity / California Department of Water Resources FOR EDITORIAL USE ONLY
Angie Gourirand walks down the snow-covered steps of her home with groceries on a sled in Running Springs, Calif., Tuesday, Feb. 28, 2023. Beleaguered Californians got hit again Tuesday as a new winter storm moved into the already drenched and snow-plastered state, with blizzard warnings blanketing the Sierra Nevada and forecasters warning residents that any travel was dangerous. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)
The driveway entrance to the Sand Flat Campground is covered by snow, located between a bank of the South Fork of the American River and US Highway 50 in El Dorado County, the site was not accessable by car. This image is shown in advance of the Department of Water Resources’ Snow Survey scheduled for Phillips Station in the Sierra Nevada Mountains on March 3, 2023 . (Photo Taken March 1, 2023) Andrew Innerarity / California Department of Water Resources FOR EDITORIAL USE ONLY
This photo provided by Palisades Tahoe shows snow covered Palisades Tahoe ski resort in Olympic Valley, Calif., on Wednesday, March 1, 2023. (Blake Kessler/Palisades Tahoe via AP)
The last time that no part of California was in at least a moderate-level drought was February 2020, the report noted.
While the Bay Area’s fortunes changed due to heavy rainfall, high stream flows, soil moisture and reservoir levels, a big part of the reason for the statewide shift has been massive snow accumulating in the Sierra.
“This is an epic snowpack, particularly in the central and southern Sierra,” said Jeffrey Mount, a professor emeritus at UC Davis and senior fellow at the Public Policy Institute of California’s water center. “In some places it’s off the charts. People will be skiing until summer.”
On Wednesday, the statewide Sierra snowpack was 192% of its historical average, according to a series of 107 automated snow sensors operated by the state Department of Water Resources.
That’s the highest March 1 reading since 1993 when it was 205%. In fact, there have only been four years back to 1950, when consistent statewide records began, where the Sierra snowpack was larger on March 1 than it is now. Those are 1969 (263% of average), 1952 (228%), 1983 (211%) and 1993.
The latest round of snow storms closed Yosemite National Park last weekend. The park was expected to reopen Thursday, but spokesman Scott Gediman said it remains closed indefinitely.
The storms also closed Highway 50 and Interstate 80 on Monday and Tuesday and shut down schools across the Lake Tahoe area. On Tuesday, there was so much snow that many of the major ski resorts, including Palisades, Heavenly and Kirkwood, closed due to avalanche danger, blocked roads and snow so deep it was impeding chairlifts.
“We have snow covering all of our second-floor windows. I’m going to have to shovel the roof soon,” said Andrew Schwartz, lead scientist at the UC Central Sierra Snow Lab at Donner Summit.
There was a brief respite Thursday and Friday but more snow and rain are expected across Northern California this weekend.
Schwartz reported that the snow lab received 35 inches of snow from Tuesday to Wednesday, 7 feet over the previous three days and 12 feet over the past 7 days.
In the coming months, that snow will melt, continuing to fill reservoirs across the state. It also will help replenish groundwater — although not restore areas that have been overpumped for generations such as the San Joaquin Valley. And all the snow will reduce the risk of wildfires because forests will be buried in snow longer into the summer than normal.
Yet, despite the heavy rain and snow, legally all 58 of California’s counties remain in a drought emergency that was declared by Gov. Gavin Newsom in October 2021. That status included a state order for local water agencies to impose conservation restrictions on homes and businesses.
As the current wet winter has unfolded, Newsom has directed officials at the state Department of Water Resources to report back to him in April after the winter rain and snow season is over, with recommendations on which parts of the state should be removed from the emergency declaration.
Lake Tahoe, California. I’ll never complain about snow again. pic.twitter.com/r1Bk55uJY7
— We call it pop (@babapaul2_paul) March 1, 2023
California had endured three record-dry years in a row, marked by severe heat waves, massive wildfires, water restrictions for millions of people and water shortages at farms.
In November, 40.9% of the state was in extreme drought, the third worst of four categories the Drought Monitor uses, and 16.5% was in exceptional drought, the worst. After a series of nine atmospheric river storms from late December to mid-January, which triggered flooding, downed trees and killed at least 20 people, the Drought Monitor removed all of the state from those two most severe categories.
On Thursday, 24.9% of California remained in “severe drought,” the second-worst category, down from 91.8% in November. The Sacramento Valley, from Yolo County to the Oregon border, made up most of the area with the most serious drought conditions still remaining.
None of California’s 15 coastal counties, where many reservoirs are 100% full, are still in any kind of drought status. The Sierra Nevada also is completely out of drought from Fresno County’s higher elevations to Sierra County north of Lake Tahoe.
Although the nine-county Bay Area, and Los Angeles, Orange and San Diego counties are no longer in a drought, the areas are still classified “abnormally dry,” a level below drought.
State water officials have noted that while many reservoirs are full or above their historic averages, some, such as the state’s largest, Shasta, or the third largest, Trinity, both near Redding, fell so low during the drought they haven’t filled yet. Shasta on Thursday was 60% full, for example.
And while reservoirs are brimming in coastal counties such as Marin, Santa Cruz and Santa Barbara that took the brunt of January storms, Southern California has a water crisis with low levels on one of its key sources, the Colorado River, which hasn’t benefited much from the big storms.
“Some areas will likely come out of drought conditions because of the very wet conditions we’ve had,” said Jeanine Jones, a top official at the Department of Water Resources, last month. “But it really depends on a water supplier’s individual sources of supply.”
Lake Oroville, California’s second-largest reservoir, shown here on Feb. 14, 2023, was 70% full on Thursday March 2, 2023. Heavy winter storms have caused it to steadily rise from a low point of just 22% full in September, 2021, and melting snow from the Sierra Nevada will cause its level to continue to rise into the summer. (Photo: Justin Sullivan, Getty Images)