How Much Will These Storms Help Relieve California’s Drought?

In the Sierra Nevada, the moisture from California’s recent storms has fallen as snow rather than rain. Credit…George Rose/Getty Images

If you’re looking for a silver lining to the punishing storms sweeping California, look no further than the state’s snowpack.

As of Tuesday, California’s mountain snow held more than twice the water content that’s considered average for this time of year, The Times’s Mike Ives reported. That matters because as the Sierra Nevada snow melts in the warmer months, it typically provides about 30 percent of California’s water supply.

“With the snowpack the way it is right now, roughly around 200 percent for most areas of the Sierra Nevada, that’s a great thing for California,” Chris Hintz, a meteorologist at the National Weather Service office in Sacramento, said on Wednesday.

With the news of the replenished snowpack, you may be wondering what kind of impact the recent storms will have on the current drought, which began in 2020 and has stretched through the three driest years on record in the state. Could these downpours be enough to end our dry spell?

Well, experts say that the atmospheric rivers hitting the Golden State will undoubtedly help but probably won’t be enough to reverse the drought altogether.

“These storms are really good news, and they’re exactly the news we need at this point in time, but we still have a long ways to go,” said Alex Hall, the director of the Center for Climate Science at U.C.L.A. “We’d need a couple wet years in California back to back to make us feel like we’re out of the drought here.”

In short, one big storm (or even six) isn’t enough to undo years of minimal precipitation and rising temperatures. Daniel Swain, a climate scientist also at U.C.L.A., compared the storms to over-watering a neglected potted plant: The water, while welcome, can’t all be absorbed at once, won’t eliminate future water needs and won’t necessarily fix all of the damage done by the neglect.

“You can’t just put a ton of water on the ground and expect the ecosystems to magically bounce back or expect the groundwater to magically recover,” Swain told me.

Water supply levels of many of the state’s largest reservoirs, including Shasta and Oroville, remain below the historical average for this time of year. And we don’t know what’s coming after these atmospheric rivers taper off, which is forecast to begin late next week.

California’s rainiest months are typically December through February, but there are no guarantees that the rain will continue through the end of the wet season. The rest of 2023 could be very dry, resulting in an average water year overall, despite starting with these torrential storms. “It wouldn’t be unprecedented for us to have very little precipitation in the coming months after this storm sequence,” Hall told me.

Even if the drought does end, it probably won’t stay that way for long, if California’s recent climate history is a guide, The Times’s Henry Fountain reported.

According to the U.S. Drought Monitor, the state has had four periods of persistent drought this century — 2001-04, 2007-09, 2012-16 and the current one. Between each of these droughts there were only a few years of wet weather — often extremely wet weather, like the kind occurring now.

“What we’re seeing is what I and others are calling weather whiplash,” said Peter Gleick, the co-founder of and a senior fellow at the Pacific Institute, a research organization specializing in water issues. “We don’t seem to get average years anymore.”

Tell us: How are the storms affecting you? Email us at [email protected] with your stories and photos.

For more:

  • Precipitation is expected to tail off, and the state should get some dry weather starting today. However, a new wave of atmospheric rivers is expected to arrive by this weekend.

  • California’s redwood forests don’t mind wet, windy weather.

  • Lightning in California: Why isn’t the state struck more often?

In California, R.J. Reynolds began marketing what it said was a new, non-menthol Newport cigarette. Antismoking advocates criticized the campaign as an attempt to circumvent the state’s ban on flavored tobacco products.Credit…Aaron Wojack for The New York Times

If you read one story, make it this

R.J. Reynolds is pivoting to new cigarette pitches as California’s ban on flavored tobacco goes into effect.

Naloxone doses, which are used to reverse opioid overdoses.Credit…Travis Dove for The New York Times

The rest of the news

  • Naloxone in schools: Gov. Gavin Newsom committed to providing naloxone, the drug that reverses overdoses, to middle and high schools in his proposed education spending plan, The Los Angeles Times reports.

    Here is more about what’s included in Newsom’s budget, from The Associated Press.


  • Off-duty drinking: The Los Angeles Police Department tightened its policy on off-duty officers drinking alcohol while armed, making it a violation for an officer to have a blood-alcohol level of 0.04 percent or higher, The Los Angeles Times reports.

  • Storm damage: Los Angeles County homeowners who experience damage from the current wave of storms may qualify for lower property taxes, The Los Angeles Times reports.


  • A historic re-election: Eddie Valero made history at the Tulare County Board of Supervisors chambers when he was sworn in to a second term to represent District 4, becoming the first Latino in county history to win re-election on the board, The Fresno Bee reports.


  • No R.T.O.: Google mobility data suggests that San Francisco has had one of the slowest returns to in-person work since the pandemic began, compared with other major metropolitan areas, The San Francisco Chronicle reports.

  • Tree canopy: Sacramento’s iconic tree canopy has turned destructive in the wake of the storms plaguing the state, The Associated Press reports.

Credit…Yossy Arefi for The New York Times (Photography and Styling)

What we’re eating

Sour cream chicken enchiladas.

An olive oil tasting table is set up near the vineyards at Round Pond Estate in the Napa Valley.Credit…Josh Haner/The New York Times

Where we’re traveling

Today’s tip comes from Liz DiMarco Weinmann:

Tell us about your favorite places to visit in California. Email your suggestions to [email protected]. We’ll be sharing more in upcoming editions of the newsletter.

A snowy owl stretches out its wing as it perches on the top of a chimney of a home in Cypress last month.Credit…Mark Rightmire/The Orange County Register

And before you go, some good news

Thousands of people are descending upon Cypress, a suburb in Orange County, hoping to catch a glimpse of a bird of prey that mysteriously found its way far from home.

The natural habitat of the snowy owl is the forbidding frozen wilderness of the high Arctic tundra. But one has appeared on Southern California streets lined with palm trees. “It’s like seeing Santa Claus on a beach,” Nancy Caruso, a neighbor who has seen the owl, told The Times. “Like that out of place, but cool.”

Every so often, the owl, which first appeared in November, takes off to hunt for a rat or a gopher under the night sky. But the owl always comes back.

“It’s the last thing on Earth you’d expect to see there,” David Bell, a board member of the Los Angeles Birders who found himself among the people marveling at the animal when it first appeared, told SFGate. “You’re thinking to yourself that it couldn’t possibly be real, and then it swivels its head. Yep, it’s real.”

Thanks for reading. I’ll be back tomorrow. — Soumya

P.S. Here’s today’s Mini Crossword.

Briana Scalia, Isabella Grullón Paz and Shivani Gonzalez contributed to California Today. You can reach the team at [email protected].


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