California drought: How much do recent storms help the state’s water supply?

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LOS ANGELES (KABC) — After the driest start to any year on record, California ended 2022 with snow-capped mountains, soaked roadways and flood warnings.

The soggy weather continues into 2023, with this week’s bomb cyclone storm dumping several inches of rain.

So what difference does that make in California’s extended drought?

Experts say the wet winter makes a dent, but there’s still a long way to go for the state’s water supplies to be built back up to sufficient levels.

“Rain in California will certainly help, but it won’t alleviate the drought overall in the western United States,” said Lowell Stott, professor of earth sciences at the University of Southern California.

Stott says our water resources rely on a consistent seasonal accumulation of snow and ice at high elevations in the Sierra Nevada Mountains.

“In California we are dependent upon the accumulation of snow and ice at high elevations because we get so little precipitation during the spring and summer seasons. And so during the winter, we accumulate snow and ice hopefully at high elevations. And during the spring months, that precipitation that was in the form of snow begins to melt and the runoff from that melt flows into reservoirs,” Stott said.

Stott says it’ll take many years of consistent rain to see a difference in the drought, which is why water conservation efforts are still so important.

A map of conditions in California produced by the U.S. Drought Monitor can be found here. The latest map update as of Dec. 29, before the most recent storms, showed large swaths of inland California – more than a third of the state from Kern County north to the Oregon border – in the two most extreme states of “exceptional” and “extreme” drought.

In Los Angeles, water supplies come from several sources, including snowfall in the Sierras – but also direct capture of rainfall. So big storms do help that aspect.

Steven Frasher, public information officer with Los Angeles County Public Works, says about one-third of L.A. County’s water supply is from stormwater capture.

“Big priority for a storm event is to capture as much of the rainfall as we can,” Frasher said.

“You can almost call it stormwater harvest. Even in this last storm over New Year’s weekend, the county was able to capture almost 2 billion gallons of stormwater for use in groundwater recharge.”

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