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Calif. Drought: Storms Help, Water Supply 'Below Average'

Woranuch Joyce / Capital Public Radio

Several December storms brought snow to the Sierra Nevada. This view is from December 4, 2015 at Donner Memorial State Park in Truckee, Calif.

Woranuch Joyce / Capital Public Radio

Recent recent storms have helped reduce the percentage of California in drought but forecasters say there is a long way to go. And, while a strong El Niño is predicted, it won’t end the historic four-year drought.

The U.S. Drought Monitor released December 10, splits the report between Northern and Southern California. 

The recent rains have brought a slight reduction in extreme drought for one area of northern California, but there were no changes to the drought depiction in southern California.

"The area’s [California] multi-year drought means recovery will likely happen very slowly, and the only improvement made this week was the removal of the D3 [extreme drought] in coastal northwestern California," the report noted.

The drought intensity levels show California remains 97 percent in moderate drought, 92 percent in severe, 69 percent in extreme and nearly 45 percent in exceptional drought.
Storms in November and early December have brought snow to the Sierra Nevada, which allowed many Sierra ski areas to open earlier than planned.
The snow is a "rapid start to the wet/snowy season" for California, Nevada and other parts of the western United States, according to the report issued two weeks ago. 
But the Dec. 10 drought update tempers the impact the series of storms has had on California’s below average water supply after four years of drought.
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El Niño Advisory


In her latest El Niño update, Sacramento National Weather Service Warning Coordination Meteorologist Michelle Mead pointed out that the recent weather pattern is "a welcome change from more recent fall seasons" and a typical fall pattern for northern California.  

"El Niño is still on track to rank among the top three strongest episodes going back to 1950," Mead says.

She says the typical southern jet stream storm track associated with El Niño is expected to "kick in after the New Year."

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While the recent storms help and El Niño may increase heavy precipitation, California’s water supply will need much more to fill major reservoirs, many at record lows in December.
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Drought Improvement Continues In Pacific Northwest 

The biggest improvement in drought conditions in the western U.S. is in the Pacific Northwest, where a series of storms have pummeled Oregon and Washington with record precipitation, bringing flooding, mudslides and power outages over the past week.
"Heavy precipitation pounded the western half of Washington (from the Cascades to the coast) and northwestern Oregon, with more than 20 inches reported in a small part of the latter region near the coast," according to the report.
"Along the western slopes of the Washington Cascades and a larger section of extreme northwestern Oregon, 10 to locally over 15 inches prevailed. More than 5 inches fell on the northern and central Oregon Cascades, along most of the Oregon and extreme northern California coastline, and spotty areas across the Idaho Panhandle." 

But even as the report highlighted the heavy rain, it also noted that snowfall was minimal. 

"An unusually small proportion of the precipitation fell as snow in the Oregon Cascades, reducing the positive impact of the heavy precipitation," the monitor reported. 

"Snowfall was a little more generous in the Washington Cascades, but the mountain chain in both states has less snowpack than normal for this time of year." 


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The Drought Monitor classifications improved by one category throughout northwestern Oregon, south-central Washington and adjacent Oregon, and the Washington Cascades, eliminating abnormal dryness as far southeast as Portland. 

Nearly 91 percent of Oregon is in moderate drought, 88 percent is in severe and nearly 60 percent is in extreme drought. More than 60 percent of Washington is in moderate drought, 48 percent is in severe and nearly 34 percent is in extreme drought. 

"Along the western side of the central Washington Cascades and in coastal northwestern Oregon, precipitation totals are 8 to locally 16 inches above normal," according to the update. "Most of the improved areas recorded a small surplus of precipitation during this period, and are now a few inches above normal for the last 6 months."

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