California's winter storms spark hope for recovery from three-year drought

Reuters News
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Posted: Dec 19, 2014 1:56 PM

By Sharon Bernstein

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (Reuters) - The wet weather that has soaked California for the past few weeks may be a sign that the state is beginning to pull out of its devastating three-year drought, climate experts said on Friday.

With precipitation already higher than normal for this time of year and rain in the northern part of the state on Friday, experts are "cautiously optimistic" that the dry cycle may be starting to ease, said Courtney Obergfell, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Sacramento.

Part of the reason is that a weather pattern that had blocked storms from reaching California since the winter of 2012-2013, dubbed the "ridiculously resilient ridge," by meteorologists, has dissipated.

"We're seeing periods where storms can make their way into California," Obergfell said.

Rain was forecast for the northern part of the state throughout the day on Friday, with showers continuing into Saturday, Obergfell said. Another storm system could bring more rain starting Christmas Eve, she said.

The storms that have dropped up to 15 inches on parts of the state this month have begun replenishing reservoirs and aquifers diminished by three years of drought, experts with the U.S. Drought Monitor said this week.

By Tuesday, the latest date for which data is available, just 32 percent of California was considered to be in the worst possible drought conditions, down from just below 60 percent in September, according to David Miskus, who monitors droughts for the National Weather Service.

"With several more months still left in the wet season, it is possible that additional storms similar to the ones that just occurred will continue to chip away at the long-term hydrological drought," Miskus wrote in a report released on Thursday.

Michael Anderson, California's state climatologist, said the storms would have to continue throughout the winter to make a significant impact. Rain would have to be accompanied by cold temperatures in the mountains to replenish the snowpack that provides much of the state's water when it melts in the spring and runs into rivers and streams.

"There's been limited improvement," Anderson said. "But reservoirs are still very low, and the snowpack is still well below average."

So far, he said, the weather pattern is consistent with the phenomenon meteorologists call El Nino, which is caused by warm water in the Pacific Ocean near South America and can bring rain to California and the southwestern United States.

(Reporting by Sharon Bernstein; Editing by Lisa Von Ahn)