SAN FRANCISCO – Roaring storms that brought California almost a year's worth of snow and rain in a single month should make state water managers' Sierra snowpack survey Thursday a celebration, marking this winter's dramatic retreat of the state's more than 5-year-drought, water experts say.
Typically, snowfall in the Sierra Nevada mountains during winter storms provide a third of the state's water through the year, as the drifts melt. In January, back-to-back-to-back storms from the tropics that each dropped a hurricane's worth of water on the state have put the state at 108 percent of its normal rain and snow for the year, with two months still left in the rainy season, said Michael Dettinger, a hydrologist for the U.S. Geological Survey.
California had received just one-fourth of a normal year's precipitation when January started, he said. The storm systems, known as atmospheric rivers, "caught us all off guard, how many came in so quickly, and turned everything around," Dettinger said.
January's storms lifted the northern half of the state out of drought. This time last year, 95 percent of California was in drought, after the driest three-year stretch in the state's history.
In April of 2014, Gov. Jerry Brown stood in a Sierra meadow bare of its usual snow to declare a drought emergency in California, and ordered mandatory water conservation in cities and towns. Surveyors with the state Department of Water Resources will return to the meadows Thursday with rods to measure the depth of the snowpack so far this winter.
State water officials, who lifted the statewide conservation mandate as the drought eased, say Brown's administration likely will wait for a final seasonal snow survey in April before deciding whether to officially end the state drought emergency.