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Will California’s ‘atmospheric river’ storms end the drought?

Heavy rains may refill reservoirs, but they won't solve the state's broader water crisis


By Jake Bittle - Grist

For the past three years, California has been suffering under the worst drought in state history. Key reservoirs have bottomed out, farmers have left their fields unplanted, and cities have forced residents to let their lawns go brown.


Now the state’s weather has taken a violent swing in the other direction. A series of powerful “atmospheric river” storms — so called because they look like horizontal streams of moisture flowing in from the Pacific — have brought record-breaking precipitation to the Golden State over the last two weeks, dropping almost a foot of rain in the San Francisco Bay Area, overwhelming the state’s rivers, and bringing several feet of snow to the Sierra Nevada mountain range in the eastern part of the state. The storms have caused widespread devastation, destroying critical roadways in the Bay Area and killing at least five people.


Though it has come at a tremendous cost, the past few weeks of rain have helped to refill the reservoirs that supply much of the state’s water, and snowpack levels in the Sierra Nevada are now well above their average levels for this time of year, meaning that major rivers will be much more robust after the snow melts in the spring. Barring a major dropoff, this year will be much wetter than the last few.


“I’m cautiously optimistic,” said Jered Shipley, the general manager of the Anderson-Cottonwood Irrigation District, which provides water to pasture owners in the northern part of the state. “It gets us on track.” Shipley’s district takes water from Lake Shasta, the state’s largest reservoir, which all but bottomed out during the drought but has started to rebound over the past month.


If the reservoirs fill up as predicted, that will be great news for farmers and cities up and down the state, from Chico all the way to San Diego. Come spring and summer they’ll release the stored-up precipitation to cattle ranchers, nut farmers, and local water utilities around the state, ending a three-year spell of privation.


“To put it very bluntly, it’s been total devastation,” said Shipley. “This drought was a natural disaster. You may not have seen apartment buildings on fire or communities underwater, but [there were] displaced families, migrant workers not having jobs, businesses closing because nobody needed to service their tractors, feed stores closing.”


Even if 2023 does end up a wet year, it won’t prevent an ongoing water crisis, because surface precipitation is only one pillar supporting the state’s water needs. Since the reservoirs can’t hold more than a year of water, officials don’t have the option of holding it back to conserve for future years. And the other two pillars ensuring regular water availability in the Golden State — groundwater and the Colorado River — are facing crises that even a wet year won’t fix.


“This will fill our reservoirs, so that’s the good news,” said Jeffrey Mount, a senior fellow at the Public Policy Institute of California’s Water Policy Center, who studies atmospheric rivers and their impact on California’s water. “But we have been in a really dry period for the last 20 years, and that hasn’t come to an end yet.”


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