After weeks of torrential downpours and stormy skies, neighborhoods across California are left with downed trees littering the roadways. Some communities are watching as rivers and creeks threaten to break their banks and flood homes. Others have evacuated, hoping that fire-scarred hillsides don’t come crashing down.
But as the sun came out Thursday, a bit of good news came from the U.S. Drought Monitor.
The latest data showed a massive improvement in California’s drought map, with the worst classification (“exceptional drought”) wiped off the map, and the second-worst category nearly gone.
As of Thursday morning, only 0.32% of the state, up near the California-Oregon border, was still considered to be in “extreme drought.”
The maps below show a dramatic change in California’s drought landscape in just two weeks, from Dec. 27 to Jan. 10. (Use the slider tool to compare the before-and-after maps.)
Before we go any further, an important reminder: The drought is not over. Ninety-five percent of California is still in a drought, and 46 percent is still in a severe drought.
The six back-to-back atmospheric rivers have certainly helped, but they’re not enough to fix California’s long-term water problems, experts say.
“What we’ve got so far puts us in good shape, probably for at least the next year,” Alan Haynes, the hydrologist in charge of the California Nevada River Forecast Center, said.
The storms have poured a tremendous amount of water on the state, especially in central California, including the San Francisco Bay Area and Sacramento Valley. Precipitation is 138% of the average for this time of year, officials said. The storms have also dumped snow on the Sierra Nevada that runs along California’s eastern border.
Most of the state’s reservoirs remain below average for this time of year, but some have begun to fill, especially those close to the hard-hit Sacramento region and along parts of the Sierra Nevada.
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 anymore,” said Laura Feinstein, who leads work on climate resilience and environment at SPUR, a public policy nonprofit.
It’s still early in the winter and it’s unclear what the next few months will bring. Last year, statewide snowpack around this time also looked promising. But a few warm, dry months followed, and when the snowpack was supposed to peak in early April, it was just 38% of the historic average.
Plus, the storms haven’t dropped as much water in 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, according to Haynes.
“Those biggest reservoirs are just so massive it is probably going to take a while for them to fill,” he said. For some of the biggest, most crucial reservoirs, it may take five or six such drenchings, he said.
David Novak, director of the National Weather 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.
And the Colorado River, a major source of water for Southern California, has also been stricken by drought that has depleted major reservoirs on that river. The recent storms won’t fix that problem.
The next storm system is forecast to start dropping rain on California again on Friday. It could help fill more reservoirs, but could also cause even more damage in an already-soaked landscape.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.