california drought

Extreme Drought Expands in California After a Dismal Winter Dry Spell

Parts of California faced record dry conditions in January and February following a promising December.

This U.S. Drought Monitor map displays conditions in early March 2022.
US Drought Monitor

Extreme drought expanded in southeastern and Northern California this week due in part to a dry spell that followed a series of storms in December. 

Extreme drought, the second-most severe category in the weekly U.S. Drought Monitor report, now covers about 12 percent of the state. That’s up for 6 percent last week, according to the report released Thursday. 

Nearly 87 percent of California is in severe drought, up from 69 percent last week. 

All of California remains in some level of drought

The California Drought Monitor map released Thursday March 3, 2022.

“Most of the region experienced an extremely disappointing January-February period, with some locations, including downtown San Francisco, California, reporting record-low precipitation totals for those two months,” the Drought Monitor report states. 

San Francisco totaled 0.65 inches of rain in January and February. That’s 7 percent of normal. Downtown San Francisco did not even receive a trace of rain from Jan. 8 to Feb. 20.

The dismal stretch of dry weather followed a late December when a conveyor belt of storms soaked the region, easing the worst drought conditions throughout California. 

“Other California locations setting records for January-February dryness included San Jose (0.01 inch), Fresno (0.04 inch), Sacramento (0.05 inch), and Eureka (2.39 inches),” the Drought Monitor report states. 

As for March, the month starts with a storm that is making its way down the California coast. That system is due to arrive in Southern California Thursday night, bringing rain and snow through Friday.

Around the country, people rely on these piles of snow for their water supply. What is a snowpack, and how else does it impact you?

How is the California snowpack? 

California's winter mountain snowpack is far below average after two historically dry months that reversed gains from storms late last year, officials said Tuesday as they urged the nation's most populous state to conserve water.

The water content of the statewide snowpack is just 63% of normal to date and the snowmelt forecast is just 66% of average, a state Department of Water Resources official said in webcast from Phillips Station, one of hundreds of measuring sites in the Sierra Nevada.

"That’s not enough to fill up our reservoirs, and without any significant storms on the horizon, it’s safe to say that we’ll end this year dry and continue on into the third year of this ongoing drought,” said Sean de Guzman, manager of the department’s snow surveys and water supply forecasting section.

Statewide reservoir storage is at about 73% of average, and the largest reservoir, Lake Shasta, is only 37% full, he said.

California's water supply problems stem from a historic drought tied to climate change that is gripping the U.S. West. Snowmelt from the Sierra Nevada and other mountains normally provides about a third of the state's water supply.

Last year, shockingly little runoff reached reservoirs as snowmelt was absorbed by the parched ground. Gov. Gavin Newsom has been calling for Californians to reduce water consumption by 15% from 2020 levels since last summer.

After deluges late last year, California’s snowpack was at 160% of normal to date at the start of January. But ominously, the past two months were the driest consecutive January and February in the Sierra in recorded state history.

"We were all encouraged after all that rain and snow in October and December. But after how dry these last two months were, there’s no guarantee that the snowmelt will run off and follow the same historical patterns that they have in the past, which makes the results today all that much more important,” de Guzman said.

There was some melt during warm February weather, but the bulk of the current snowpack should remain intact for several weeks, he said.

Historically, December, January and February are California's wettest months, delivering over half of annual precipitation, and the snowpack reaches its peak on April 1.

In 1991, heavy late-season snowfall produced a “March Miracle” after scant winter precipitation. The U.S. Climate Prediction Center's outlook for this March has chances for more rain and snow in the northern Sierra but lower confidence for the central and southern Sierra.

“This winter has demonstrated that as the world continues to warm we’re seeing average conditions become more rare," said Jeremy Hill, manager of the department’s hydrology and flood operations branch.

“Precipitation is moving toward extremes,” he said. “Even when we get large storms and heavy snowfall early in the season, after a few dry weeks like we’ve seen after this past December, conditions go back below normal."

The new pattern is also challenging forecasting efforts.

“Our past forecasting efforts have relied on historical patterns that no longer apply given our current changed climate conditions,” Hill said.

The giant Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, a cooperative that supplies water to 19 million people in six counties, called for conservation.

General manager Adel Hagekhalil said in a statement that it is increasingly clear that winter will not relieve California from severe drought conditions.

“Some may be hoping for a miracle March to save us, but that’s not a gamble I’m willing to take. We all must immediately examine how we use water and use less,” he said.

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