The San Joaquin River, which often runs dry before reaching its mouth, spreads out along Hwy 132 west of Modesto, after weekend storms.

The San Joaquin River, which often runs dry before reaching its mouth, spreads out along Hwy 132 west of Modesto, after weekend storms. (Craig Miller/KQED)

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Nearly half of California is officially out of the drought.

While the real turning point in the drought occurred in early January, when a series of storms brought drenching rains and drifting snow to the state, the unrelenting march of moisture off the Pacific Ocean continues to make milestones in dousing the nearly six-year drought.

According to the U.S. Drought Monitor’s weekly analysis, no part of California remains in a state of “exceptional drought,” the most severe category, and barely more than 2 percent remains in “extreme drought” (bright-red on the map) as nearly two-thirds of the state was  classified just a year ago.  The portion of California classified in any level of drought is now just over 51 percent.


The animated map takes you from the first flickers of drought in 2011, through its peak, up to its waning stage today. Dark-red indicates the most severe level of drought. Yellow indicates areas considered “abnormally dry,” but not technically in drought, as defined by NOAA.

UPDATE: So moisture-packed was the parade of recent storms that a new report from NASA estimates that two of these “atmospheric rivers” by themselves might have made up more than a third of California’s five-year deficit of water content in the Sierra snowpack.

“This has been a real about-face,” says Dan Cayan, a climate researcher at Scripps Institution of Oceanography in La Jolla. “To date we’ve achieved almost a normal winter’s worth of water in many places in the state.” That’s with two months remaining in California’s traditional wet season.

Nearly all measures of moisture are showing this. Compared to the average on April 1, when the Sierra snowpack typically peaks, water content of the statewide snowpack is already at 106 percent, and nearly double the average for this date. In the southern Sierra, which had been lagging the rest of the state, it’s more than double.

Likewise reservoirs are rapidly topping up (starkly seen in this satellite imagery). The state’s two largest reservoirs are both well above their historical averages and holding more than 80 percent of their total capacity (many reservoirs designed for flood control are not permitted to fill completely during the winter).

Before and After: The Rain’s Impact on Three California Reservoirs

“I’m a little reluctant to say the drought’s over, even though conditions have markedly improved,” cautions Cayan, noting that the state’s groundwater aquifers have a lot of catching up to do. Cayan says it may take years of “bountiful water” to refill those that can be refilled. Farms and cities have drawn heavily on groundwater during the drought, to make up for scant supplies of surface water.

The state’s most stubborn trouble spot remains concentrated around Santa Barbara, Ventura, and western Kern Counties, portions of which remain in extreme drought.

  • SynerGenetics

    California should always be in drought mode especially if our main source of water is from the rain.

    We should start using this “Technology” to develop better gray & black water rather than Instagram, Facebook, twitter, netflix, and google. We need virtual technology and more in your face technology that can can transform the physical world..

  • RobOnMV

    But ground water reserves are another story

Author

Craig Miller

Craig is KQED's science editor, specializing in weather, climate, water & energy issues, with a little seismology thrown in just to shake things up. Prior to his current position, he launched and led the station's award-winning multimedia project, Climate Watch. Craig is also an accomplished writer/producer of television documentaries, with a focus on natural resource issues.