The dusty hills of Griffith Park are budding shades of green. In Pasadena, the water flows through arroyos that just a few weeks ago sat cakey and dry. And from the perfect vantage point in the center, the distant San Gabriel Mountains shine with snowdrifts.
After one of the driest years in recent times, Los Angeles – and California – have gotten off to a particularly wet start. The state received more rainfall in the last three months of 2021 than in the previous 12 months, the National Weather Service said.
Across the country, 33.9 trillion gallons of water have fallen since the start of the water year, which runs from Oct. 1 to Sept. 30 to accommodate the wet winter months and spring runoff. The three-month figure has already surpassed the previous water year’s 12-month total of 33.6 trillion gallons. By comparison, Lake Tahoe holds about 40 trillion gallons.
“It’s been a great start to the water year,” said Cory Mueller, a meteorologist at the Sacramento Weather Service. “Most areas have already seen what they saw last water year and a little more, just in the three months we’ve had. “
But while all that moisture provided a much-needed boost to nationwide drought conditions, Mueller and other experts stressed that California will have to maintain this wet trend to really get out of its dry period. The water year 2021 was California’s driest in a century, and more than half of the state’s water years since 2000 have been dry years or drought years.
“Not being paid for three months and then getting a normal paycheck does not bring you back to normal in your bank account,” said Noah Diffenbaugh, a climate researcher at Stanford University.
The same goes for California’s drought.
“Those [precipitation] deficits have been so pronounced through so much of the state that it will take more than a normal year to overcome, and we do not know how this year will ultimately play out, ”Diffenbaugh said. “That said, it’s a very encouraging start.”
There have actually been some promising improvements.
The U.S. drought monitoring map – which has long indicated severe, extreme or unusual drought conditions in most of California – looked a little less worrying after the early storms.
From Nov. 30 to Dec. 28, large parts of the state – including Los Angeles and much of the Sierra Nevada – experienced at least one level of improvement, according to a Times analysis. Almost no areas are left in the “extraordinary drought” category.
The recent rain “did not completely remove the drought,” said Brad Pugh, a meteorologist from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration who helps manage the drought monitoring map. “There are still long-term rainfall deficits that go back two years. But it certainly helped improve drought conditions.”
A large part of the state is still in the category of “extreme” drought.
But Pugh said some seasonal forecasts are shifting in a positive direction. In October, NOAA’s prospects favored a drier winter than usual, a prediction that did not come true in December.
The agency’s recent three-month precipitation outlook now shows “equal chances of below, close to or above normal precipitation” in much of northern California this season, Pugh said, adding, “It’s a slightly wetter view.”
Even a slightly wetter view comes as a welcome change for the dehydrated condition. In 2021, record-breaking heat and dryness contributed to a devastating wildfire season in which more than 2.5 million acres were burned and thousands of homes destroyed.
Conditions were so bleak that state officials had to transport young salmon from the Central Valley to the Pacific Ocean due to low river levels. Later, regulators were forced to shut down a major hydropower plant at Lake Oroville for the first time due to low water levels.
And Lake Mead – long considered a lifeline for water in the West – fell to historic lows, leaving a sharp “bathtub” around its perimeter as proof of how bad it had become.
Recent storms have boosted the region’s reservoirs, but most are still missing, said Bill Patzert, a retired climatologist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.
“Reservoirs, especially Lakes Mead and Powell, are very depleted, groundwater and aquifers have been dangerously drained down, and in SoCal, most of this lovely rain ended up in the Pacific Ocean,” Patzert said.
Lake Mead was at about 34% of its capacity on Tuesday, according to the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation. Lake Oroville was about 39%.
In an update at the end of the year, officials at the California Department of Water Resources said that December’s storms offered a “glimmer of hope,” but that more would be needed “before we can be a place where drought conditions no longer give rise to concern.”
The 2020-21 water years together rank as the two driest years in California’s state-wide rainfall record, surpassing even the historic dry years of 1976-77, the agency said.
“Even if we get soaked and snowed over the next three months, the effects of two decades of on-again, off-again – mostly on-again – rain and snow deficits will not be erased,” Patzert said.
In particular, much of the precipitation since October 1 has fallen as snow, which is extremely valuable as both a water source and a water storage system in the state. Snowpacks, which melt in the hot spring and summer months, tend to provide an extra burst of water at a moment when precipitation stops and demand begins to peak.
The UC Berkeley Central Sierra Snow Lab at Donner Pass recorded its snowiest December ever at 214 inches or more than 17 feet, officials said.
The powder piles also broke the lab’s 51-year October-to-December 260-inch snowfall record set in 1970, with 268 inches falling over the three-month stretch this year.
“Not bad for having a very dry November and early December,” said station manager Andrew Schwartz.
Based on records from 1895, November 2021 was the seventh-warmest and eighth-driest November recorded in the United States, with 46 of the 48 consecutive states seeing precipitation below the NOAA average. California, especially Southern California, along with the rest of the Southwest, stood out among the rain-deprived regions of the country.
But by the end of December, humidity had markedly improved. Officials conducted the season’s first snow survey at Phillips Station near South Lake Tahoe and found that this month’s storms brought the state’s mountain snow package to about 160% of the average for this time of year.
Moisture was even plentiful in Southern California. At least nine daily rainfall records were broken in the Los Angeles area on Dec. 30, including an 85-year-old record of 2.34 inches in downtown LA
But a “wet start to the year does not mean this year will end above average when all is said and done,” said head of snow surveys at the Department of Water Resources, Sean de Guzman, in a statement on the study.
The agency’s director, Karla Nemeth, added that “we need more storms and average temperatures this winter and spring and we can not be sure that it will come.”
“It’s important that we continue to do our part to keep saving – we’ll need that water this summer,” she said.
Much will depend on what the rest of the season offers. Whether January, February and March will be as humid as December depends on factors such as La Niña conditions and pressure systems off the coast, experts said.
Currently, a La Niña pattern is holding in the tropical Pacific, and forecasters expect it to continue through the winter before moving on to a neutral pattern by spring. The pattern typically results in a drier winter than usual in the southwest, as was the case in 2021.
According to Patzert, 84% of the La Niña years since 1950 have been drier than the average in Los Angeles.
Also of concern is the warming of global temperatures caused by climate change. Warm rainfall falls like rain instead of snow and can even melt valuable snowpacks, said Diffenbaugh, Stanford’s climate researcher.
“The state of the drought is tentative,” Diffenbaugh said, and depends in part on “how many storms we get in the coming months, how hot they are, and how much rainfall and snow they deliver to which parts of the state.”
A year that could give some clues as to what the coming months may bring is 2012, when California experienced above-average rainfall and snow in December. The rest of that water year ended up being deboned dry, resulting in the first year of a drought that lasted until 2017, state officials said.
According to NOAA, the short-term outlook favors below-normal precipitation and above-normal temperatures in the West until mid-January.
While Sacramento and some northern parts of the state are expected to see more storms this week, other areas, including Los Angeles, are ready to remain sunny and dry.