The good news, bad news on California's water supplies, drought after record rainfall

Brooke Staggs, The Orange County Register on

Published in Weather News

Let’s start with the good news.

The record-setting rain that’s pummeled Southern California over the past few days, coupled with solid water storage from last year’s wet winter, has Harvey De La Torre, head of the Municipal Water District of Orange County, offering this reassuring prediction:

“I’m very confident that we will not need drought restrictions in 2024.”

After a run of historically dry years, no part of California has been under drought conditions since September, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor. The new storm is likely to reduce water demand for weeks, with most Californians well trained to turn off sprinklers during storms. Also, state records show that both rainfall and snowpack levels — which were far below average just a couple weeks ago — are now much improved.

But in not-so-great news, water experts say conditions in this “Pineapple Express” storm haven’t been ideal for bolstering the state’s water supply.

That’s because so much rain fell so quickly that agencies controlling dams and reservoirs have to prioritize flood management over water recovery. That means releasing lots of water into the ocean.


Agency efforts to capture more stormwater in storage and groundwater recharge basins have improved in recent years, said Medhi Nemati, an environmental policy professor at UC Riverside who studies water infrastructure. But when parts of Los Angeles get 75% of their annual rainfall in just two days, Nemati said there’s only so much water agencies can do to keep up.

Also, while California mountains have certainly been getting solid snow, the storm just wasn’t cold enough to build up the massive snowpack the region needs to be insulated against dry months and years to come.

“Historically, El Niño winters weren’t that much warmer than other winters in California,” Daniel Swain, a climate scientist at UCLA, noted during a briefing on the storms. “But now they are. That’s climate change.”

Snowpack is an ideal reservoir of sorts, De La Torre said, since it stores water during winter and gradually releases it as snow melts each spring and summer. So, from a water management perspective, he said the most helpful anti-drought weather pattern would be a series of smaller and colder storms that help the snowpack pile up.


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