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The Effect of Recent Rains on the California Drought

Photo source: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images


The recent rains in the Bay Area during early and mid-December brought about many school closures, flooded freeways, and power outages throughout the region. Rainfall totals around the Bay for December were double the average after the two tropical storms swept over Northern California.

Parts of the North Bay received as much as ten inches of rain as of December 12th, causing floods around the Russian River area. Other parts of the Bay Area received as much as half an inch of rain per hour, flooding at least eighteen freeways to closure around the state. As you might remember, the freeways weren’t the only things closed during the storms in December—many schools, including CPS, were closed in the San Francisco, Alameda, and Marin County regions because the heavy rains would endanger students trying to reach their schools.

At least half a million homes in California lost power during these two storms after power lines and stations succumbed to the torrential rain. Winds measured as high as forty-eight miles per hour delayed and canceled many flights at the San Francisco International Airport. High winds and the oversaturated ground, parched after three years of severe drought, caused branches and trees to give way and fall during the storms. Alameda, Santa Clara, and San Mateo Counties issued flash flood warnings when the deluge of water from the sky threatened to overflow both small creeks and large rivers. Mudslides and floods occurred in Southern California, with drier ground unable to absorb the water. Sandbags ran out in most areas as homeowners tried to protect their homes from the “storm of the decade,” as some called it.

However, the two storms barely made a dent in California’s drought and reservoir levels. Although they did raise most reservoirs by 3-4%, most Northern California reservoirs are at half of their average levels for this time of the year and Southern California’s reservoirs are worse. The California Department of Water Resources believes that California will need at least six more storms like the past two in December in order to fill its twelve main reservoirs and end California’s three, nearly four, year drought.

Although the storms are a good start, what California really needs is an “El Niño,” a warming of Pacific waters, which leads to an increase in precipitation over the West Coast. Unfortunately, in mid-December, the National Atmospheric and Oceanic Administration said that the Pacific was as warm as it was going to get this year, meaning that an El Niño is very unlikely to happen anytime soon. Therefore, California is highly unlikely to shake the drought this year, even after December’s “storm of the decade.”

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