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Rain & Snow on the Way

Just before the New Year, Californians received good news when sensors placed throughout the Sierra-Nevada range revealed that the state’s snowpack stood at just 72% of normal. While the reading offers a vast improvement over 2015 (when the snowpack on January 1 measured 47% of the normal water content level), it lags behind the 103% of normal measurement recorded on January 1 last year. But this past weekend brought the second of two winter storms to the Sierras that may help push the state above “normal” snow levels for the second year in a row.

Unfortunately, it’s too soon to announce the end of California’s five-year drought—an event all Californians look forward to—but one can find a few hopeful signs, according to the Los Angeles Times:

The region had its wettest October in 30 years in 2016, followed by above-average precipitation [in] December. More than 20 inches of snow dropped across the northern Sierra Nevada last weekend and another set of storms could provide an additional four feet by early next week, said Zach Tolby of the National Weather Service.

The weekend storm—the result of an “atmospheric river” of moisture from just north of the Hawaiian islands (often called a “Pineapple Express”)—did, as hoped, deliver significant precipitation to a thirsty state. But it also brought warmer temperatures to the area, and as a result, much of the precipitation fell in the form of rain. The rainfall certainly added to the state’s reservoirs. But it also brought flooding, avalanches and mudslides; electrical outages and uprooted trees; road closures and forced evacuations (in Reno, Nevada, and Yosemite National Park); injuries and several deaths. Ironically, the rain and higher temperatures even caused some of the accumulated snow to melt, thereby reducing the encouraging snowpack levels.

Meteorologists expect more rain and snow throughout the week, and hopefully cooler temperatures will allow more of that precipitation to fall in the form of snow at elevations below 9,000 feet. To end the cycle of drought, rain is good, snow is better, but having precipitation (both rain and snow) fall throughout the “rainy season” is best of all.

Normally, nearly all of California’s precipitation falls in the fall and winter months. But for the last five or six years, the “rainy season” hasn’t delivered. High-pressure systems that often parked themselves over the northeastern region of the state, brought above-normal temperatures to much of the state and pushed winter storms above and around us. Even last winter, which got off to a relatively good start, brought nearly no measurable precipitation for the entire month of February and only moderate rainfall in March. That 103% of normal snowpack recorded last year on January 1 melted and ran off prematurely, starving creeks and rivers downstream of water flow, depriving state forests of needed irrigation, and preventing the snowpack from melting slowly enough to percolate deep into the soil and recharge natural aquifers.

If winter storms continue to bring us rain and snow for the rest of the winter—and again next winter and the winter after—California might break the devastating cycle of drought that has parched the state for the last five years. But even if that happens, we need to do a better job of conserving the water resources we have.

Read more about California’s hopefully rainy season:

With snow piling up in the Sierra, what will it take to end California’s drought?
One year after California’s worst snowpack ever, levels are back to 87% of normal
California snowpack measures low, but big storms coming
California Today: What the Snow in the Sierra Nevada Tells Us