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California drought 2021: Maps show sharp decrease in intensity statewide after December rain, snow storms


Maps recently released by the U.S. Drought Monitor show a dramatic improvement in conditions across California following a recent series of storms, but officials on Thursday cautioned that the state needs “much more” rain and snow.

A comparison of maps from the multi-agency coalition shows much of the state was in “extreme drought” on Dec. 21, while a large section of Central California was in “exceptional drought.”

Just one week later, however, in the aftermath of storms that dumped significant precipitation from Northern California to San Diego, only a relatively small area near the Oregon border remained in “exceptional drought.” Most of the state was in “severe drought,” while a swath that stretched from Siskiyou County to Kern County was still in “extreme drought.”

UC Berkeley’s Central Sierra Snow Laboratory recorded 193.7 inches of snowfall this month, which is a December record. The previous record for December, 179 inches, was set in 1970.

“As of Dec. 28, the California statewide average of snow water content is 159% of normal for that date,” the Drought Monitor said in a statement. “Given the favorable snowpack and heavy precipitation during December, additional improvements may be warranted for California during subsequent weeks.”

While the latest number might justifiably inspire optimism that the state could be nearing the end of the drought, experts warned that California is not out of the proverbial woods yet.

“We could not have asked for a better December in terms of Sierra snow and rain,” said Karla Nemeth, director of the Department of Water Resources. “But Californians need to be aware that even these big storms may not refill our major reservoirs during the next few months. We need more storms.”

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The DWR conducted its first snow survey of the season in the community of Phillips, home of the Sierra-at-Tahoe ski resort.

The survey recorded 78.5 inches of snow depth and snow water equivalent of 20 inches, which is 202% of average for Dec. 30 at Phillips Station, the DWR said. The statewide average is 160% of average.

The recent data on rain and snow marks a sharp turnaround from the beginning of this month, when state officials announced that agencies in California that serve 27 million residents and 750,000 acres of farmland would not get any of the water they’ve requested from the state heading into 2022 other than what’s needed for critical health and safety.

It was the earliest date the Department of Water Resources had issued a 0% water allocation, a milestone that reflected the then-dire conditions in California as drought gripped the nation’s most populous state and reservoirs sat at historically low levels.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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