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California remains in drought despite winter storms

The state of California remains in a drought despite December's winter storms which dumped more than 130 inches of snow in the Sierra Nevadas, a key component of California Department of Water Resources' water supply forecast.

"We could not have asked for a better December in terms of Sierra snow and rain," Karla Nemeth, director of the DWR, said.

The Department of Water Resources conducted the first snow survey of the season at Phillips Station, Thursday, Dec. 30, which showed that early winter storms in December provided a strong start to the season and some drought relief, but California still remains in a drought, DWR said in a news release.

The manual survey recorded 78.5 inches of snow depth and a snow water equivalent of 20 inches, which is 202% of average for this location. The snow water equivalent measures the amount of water contained in the snowpack. Statewide the snowpack is 160% of average. In a typical year, Sierra Nevada snowpack accounts for about 30% of California's water supply.

Earlier in 2021, nearly all California counties continued to suffer with extreme or exceptional drought, according to U.S. Drought Monitor data, and water experts said that California wasn't ready for what some were saying would be the worst drought since record-keeping began in 1896.

Much of the state received less than half of average rain and snowfall in 2021 with some areas seeing as little as a quarter of its average precipitation. For most of Northern California, the past two years was the second driest on record.

But despite the dire warnings, winter storms began moving into the area the week of Christmas, bringing with them an abundance of rain and snow, pushing the snowpack in the Sierra Nevada from virtually nothing to an excess of 145% and better than the annual average for this time of year.

As of Thursday, Jan. 6, the Southern Sierras' snow water equivalent dropped some over the past week, measuring at 150% of average, while the Central Sierra and Northern mountains also dropped and were at 144% and 142% respectively, according to the California Department of Water Resources.

December rainfall totals in Fallbrook reached 4.50 inches after the storms ended.

Drought Monitor shows improving data

The U.S. Drought Monitor's weekly report, dated Thursday, Jan. 3, showed that much of the state improved following the winter storms with Riverside and San Diego counties both moving from severe or extreme drought back down to the moderate drought level.

The Jan. 6 map showed the percentage of the area in exceptional drought stayed the same from the previous week at .84%. The percentage of the state in extreme drought now sits at 16.6% an improvement over the 32.93% reported Dec. 30 and the percentage of the state in severe drought improved from 86.26% to 67.62%.

Reservoir levels improve

Water levels in major reservoirs recovered some, getting closer to the historic averages according to data released online by the California Department of Water Resources. Since the rain began to fall, Lake Perris now sits at 81% and Lake Castaic sits at 48% of their total capacity. Reservoirs to the north, while seeing some gains, such as Pine Flat Lake at 28%, San Luis Reservoir at 30%, Lake Oroville at 40%, Lake Shasta at 31% and even Folsom Lake at 59%, still remain low.

Following the storm, water levels were so improved in Butte County that DWR was able to resume hydropower generation at the Hyatt Powerplant at Oroville Dam in Butte County. The power plant was taken offline Aug. 5 due to historic low lake levels driven by the state's ongoing severe drought conditions.

While winter storms have brought some relief, it's important to remember that California is a state that sees cyclical drought cycles so water conservation remains important to the health of the state's water resources, DWR said.

California remains in a drought emergency

In spite of the rainfall, the water year that ended Sept. 30 was the second driest on record. All of California's 58 counties remain under a drought emergency proclamation, and Californians are still being asked to reduce their water use by 15% over 2020 levels to protect water reserves.

"Californians need to be aware that even these big storms may not refill our major reservoirs during the next few months," Nemeth said. "We need more storms and average temperatures this winter and spring, and we can't be sure it's coming. So, it's important that we continue to do our part to keep conserving – we will need that water this summer."

December is the first of the three typically wettest months of California's water year. Significant January and February precipitation would be required to generate enough runoff to make up for the previous two winters that were some of the driest water years on record.

Wet Decembers are not unusual for California, but in the past, storms have also disappeared for the remainder of the season.

In 2013, the first snow survey provided promising results after a wet December, similar to this year. The following January and February, however, were exceptionally dry, and the year ended as the driest on record, contributing to a record-breaking drought.

DWR conducts five media-oriented snow surveys at Phillips Station each winter near the first of each month from January through April and, if necessary, May.

For tips on saving water, visit

Learn more about current drought conditions, the state's response and informational resources available to the public at the state's new drought preparedness website,

Kim Harris can be reached by email at [email protected].


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