Monster storms make a dent in California’s drought

After five straight bone-dry years, a parade of monster storms have delivered a knockout blow to California’s crippling drought, a new federal report shows.Things have improved so much that no place in the state is considered in “extreme”...

Monster storms make a dent in California’s drought

After five straight bone-dry years, a parade of monster storms have delivered a knockout blow to California’s crippling drought, a new federal report shows.

Things have improved so much that no place in the state is considered in “extreme” drought, the latest U.S. Drought Monitor map shows. This is the first time that’s happened in three and a half years.

In Southern California, the drought map lists Orange County, Riverside County and the northern half of Los Angeles County in “moderate” drought status. The southern portion of L.A. County and San Bernardino County were listed as “abnormally dry.”

“There is no extreme drought anywhere in California at this point,” said Bill Patzert, climate scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory near Pasadena. “That’s positive considering we are coming off the driest five consecutive years in our history for Southern California.”

It’s even more remarkable, he said, when you consider we’ve been on a longer dry spell punctuated by brief, wet seasons.

The way Patzert sees it, the drought really began at the turn of the century. We had several dry years, followed by a record-breaking soaker in 2004-05, and another string of dryness broken by a wet 2010-11.

“But then all of the sudden we switched back and had five more dry years,” he said.

Against that backdrop, it’s going to take more than a season to refill nearby lakes — ones fed by local rain as opposed to water piped in from miles away — and groundwater basins.

That’s why, said Alex Tardy, meteorologist with the National Weather Service in San Diego, parts of the region remain under the influence of drought.

Underscoring that point, storage in the crucial groundwater basin along the Santa Ana River that supplies much of Orange County fell dramatically through the drought. And the basin stood at 22 percent full this time last year, said Eleanor Torres, a spokeswoman for the Orange County Water District.

Torres said the basin has rebounded a little, to approximately 25 percent full, a figure that will be confirmed with hard data in March.

Bottom line: Full recovery is nowhere in sight.

“Busting the drought is not as simple as counting snowflakes and raindrops,” Patzert said. “And before people get over their euphoria, we are only halfway through the rainy season.”

February is winding down. But we have March and April ahead, before the reliably long, dry summer sets in.

Forecasters thought we were getting another soaking storm this weekend to keep things going. That’s now in doubt.

“Stuart Seto, a weather specialist with the National Weather Service in Oxnard, said forecasts of rain amounts for the Sunday-Monday storm have been downgraded to a half inch to three-quarters of an inch in Los Angeles County.

“So the Oscars should be able to survive,” he said.

Tardy said a mere quarter inch to a half inch is expected in Orange County and the Inland Empire.

After that, Seto said, we could be dry for two weeks.

“So it’s a little early to have a parade,” Patzert said.

Still, this has been a winter to write home about.

Throughout Southern California, rainfall totals are off the charts. Even without another drop of rain, most places will wind up with an average season, Tardy said.

And the Sierra Nevada, that great frozen reservoir that accounts for one-third of Southern California’s water, is threatening to set an all-time snow record, he said.

Mammoth Mountain Ski Area offers a winter wonderland-style snapshot. As of Thursday, the giant resort in the Sierra had recorded 510 inches of snow for the season — half in January alone, said Lauren Burke, a Mammoth spokeswoman.

Burke said the resort record is 668 inches, set in 2010-11.

“If this level of snowfall keeps up, we’ll be blasting through that in no time,” she said in an email. “We will be open until July 4, potentially longer.”

Even though it takes more than one winter to break a drought’s stranglehold, the impact of this season has exceeded expectations.

“The takeaway is that, in one season, we’ve made significant progress in getting rid of the drought,” Tardy said. “And everywhere we’ve improved at least two categories (on the drought index).”

“We had to have an extraordinarily wet rain and snow year to do that, and we’re seeing that,” he said.

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