California's Massive Storms Will Do Little to Alleviate Its Drought Crisis

Despite the storms, it would still have to rain every other day until May to reach average precipitation totals.

Photo Credit: Marafona/Shutterstock

It’s the rainy season in California, but until this week you wouldn’t have known it. After many worrisome months, and three severely dry years, California finally got some respite from its drought, in the form of a deluge of precipitation of up to 10 inches in some places.

More rain fell in Los Angeles over the last two days, 2.7 inches, than over the last eight months, according to the New York Times as of Friday afternoon.

The intensity of the rain on Friday was unusual for Southern California even in normal times, but with soil parched from the drought, preventing water from soaking into the ground, Los Angeles area residents had to deal with power outages, traffic accidents, flash flood warnings and mudslides. Areas east of Los Angeles that had been under threat of wildfire just a few weeks ago now had to deal with mandatory evacuations in case of deadly mudslides triggered by the powerful rains. At one point the weather service even issued a tornado warning in east-central Los Angeles.

But while the rain may have uplifted despondent farmers’ hopes, offered temporary satiation to communities at risk of running out of water supplies and blanketed a dismal Sierra Nevada snowpack — which is crucial to the state’s drinking supply — it is not more more than a drop in a dry bucket when it comes to alleviating the long-term drought.

“If the drought created an empty gallon jug for us, this storm created a cup and half of water,” Tim Quinn, executive director of the Association of California Water Agencies, told the New York Times. “We would need 20 of those.”

California’s rainy season typically ends in April, and with the state’s water supply currently at just 44 percent of average, the drought emergency declared last month by Gov. Jerry Brown is still just that — an emergency.

“Despite these recent storms, it would still have to rain every other day until around May to reach average precipitation totals, and even then we would still be in a drought due to the last two dry years,” Richard Stapler, spokesman for the California Natural Resources Agency, told Reuters.

State leaders have been almost as frenzied as the volatile weather system in the last few weeks in pushing measures to moderate the drought’s impact on the state’s residents, wildlife and economy — especially the sprawling agriculture industry, which relies heavily on irrigation.

On Thursday, the California Legislature passed a $687.4-million emergency drought relief package. “Today we provide significant relief,” state Senate leader Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento) said in a speech on Thursday. “This is a lot of money and will help thousands of California families dealing with the drought.”

California Assemblywoman Nancy Skinner (D-Berkeley) said “The package today is the first step. It is not the only, and it is not the last. It is the first step to deal with an urgent crisis.”

While California’s water crisis is urgent, it is also long-term, and stakeholders across the board are struggling to deal with the consequences that climate change will, and likely already is, bringing to the West Coast. Such change is predicted to make the area hotter and drier, but recent research also suggests that climate change is increasing the risk of extreme weather events, like California’s rogue storm this weekend.

Ari Phillips is a reporter for ClimateProgress.org. A native of Santa Fe, New Mexico, he received his bachelor of arts in philosophy from the University of California, Santa Barbara, and dual master’s degrees in journalism and global policy studies from the University of Texas at Austin. He previously held internships with The Texas Observer, the Institute for Global Environmental Strategies in Japan, and the Center for Global Energy, International Arbitration, and Environmental Law at The University of Texas School of Law.

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