Half of California freed from drought after back-to-back storms drench state, report shows

BySuzanne Phan KGO logo
Friday, March 3, 2023
Still have long way to go despite promising CA drought update: Experts
Is California still in a drought? The latest drought reports show the recent back-to-back storms have improved drought conditions.

SAN FRANCISCO (KGO) -- The historic string of storms that drenched the state this year had many wondering whether California's drought could soon be over.

According to a report released Thursday, the U.S. Drought Monitor says some parts of the state are now drought-free. That includes portions of California's central coast and valley.

Some parts of Southern California remained in the "moderate" category of drought, while other parts of the region are now categorized as "abnormally dry" - one step away from eliminating drought conditions.

The report reflects the rain that was received through Tuesday of this week. That's when areas like Woodland Hills got roughly 10 inches in a 72-hour span.

At the end of last year, the U.S. Drought Monitor included "extreme" drought portions of the state, as seen in red on the Oct. 2022 map below:

A U.S. Drought Monitor graphic shows the state of California
A U.S. Drought Monitor graphic shows the state of California's drought on Feb. 28, 2023.
U.S. Drought Monitor
A U.S. Drought Monitor graphic shows the state of California
A U.S. Drought Monitor graphic shows the state of California's drought on Oct. 4, 2022.
U.S. Drought Monitor

That level of drought has now been eliminated. In January, about 35% of California fell into that category.

Despite the large reduction in drought intensity, experts caution that parts of the state still remain in the "severe" or "moderate" categories of drought.

The recent storms have actually filled many of the state's reservoirs, which could even overflow once all of the snow melts. Officials say the drought conditions across the state are improving and the water supply is looking much more promising than a month ago.

"This is big," said Paul Pastelok with AccuWeather. "This is big on how much we've gotten hit."

The state's major reservoirs are located in Northern California, which is where most of the rain and snow has fallen.

VIDEO: CA reservoir levels show signs of improvement after recent winter storms

All of this rain in California has had positive impacts on some of the state's main reservoirs, though officials say we're not out of the drought yet.

As of midnight Monday, Shasta Lake is up to 84% of its historical average, compared to 57% at the beginning of January.

Oroville is higher than its historical average at 116%, up from 71%.

In the Bay Area, Lexington Reservoir, one of the largest in Santa Clara County, has filled up with much of the recent precipitation.

"When you go out to Lexington Reservoir, it's a huge difference from what you saw in September from what you're seeing now. It's beautiful to see the water rise up on the banks," said Santa Clara Valley Water spokesperson Matt Keller.

ABC7 News asked California's Department of Water Resources (DWR) what they think about the federal drought monitor's assessment.

Bay Area Drought Map

App users: For a better experience, click here to view the graph in a new window.

"We're somewhere in the vicinity of 127% of the average statewide precipitation right now. And certainly, some areas are recovering rapidly from drought. In terms of reservoir storage, it takes longer to recharge groundwater basins. Some of our groundwater basins have been severely depleted over multiple years of drought for more than a decade. That's where we have a disconnect between water supply availability and just this one year's hydrology," said Jeanine Jones with DWR.

DWR focuses on water supply. The agency said California has made major progress so far this season. But, there's a long way to go.

"A huge improvement over the past two years. We need to see how some areas catch up, particularly in terms of groundwater capability," said Jones.

Valley Water in Santa Clara County says they're making sure they have the infrastructure to store water and put it to use. And, they're looking at other water supply projects.

RELATED: AccuWeather meteorologist breaks down impact of recent wild weather in Bay Area, state

"We cannot rely on Mother Nature. Mother Nature with climate change is going to be boom and bust. During those bust years, we really need to have a local reliable water supply and that's why we're' looking at recycled wastewater and recycled water and purified water programs," said Keller.

Water experts say all the rain this season is great, but it won't wipe out the megadrought we are in.

Scientists predict the megadrought will continue for years to come.

They say we need to continue with water conservation and we need several more wet winters to bring our reservoirs back to levels we saw before the megadrought.

In Southern California, Pyramid and Lake Perris are remaining stable. Castaic has increased from 55% of historical averages on Jan. 1 to 71%. Castaic had retrofit work done in 2021 and with the increased rain, it's returning to a more normal level.

RELATED: State lawmaker calls for audit after California 'loses' billions of gallons of water

"Keep in mind, there is a healthy snowpack sitting just upstream of those reservoirs, and so as we start seeing the warmer temperatures come during the springtime, we're hoping to see a lot of that runoff make it into those reservoirs," said Demetri Polyzos with the Metropolitan Water District.

So what happens next? Well, it all depends on Mother Nature. Once the snowpack starts melting, the reservoirs could overflow.

"We're going to start to see these reservoirs, which nine of them are already filled from the rainwater, so then you add on snow melt and we may have some problems with that as far as flooding goes," said Pastelok.

MWD expects some of the reservoirs up north will release water.

It hopes to capture as much of that water as it can.

Another winter storm will bring heavy snow to the Sierra this weekend. The storm could bring an additional five feet of snow, meaning this is a record-breaking season.

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