By Matthew Renda, Courthouse News
(CN) – March hasn’t brought a miracle to California, but it has improved the state’s water picture enough to at least delay any drought declarations.
“I would call it a March mitigation,” said Chris Kwan, a water scientist with the California State Water Resources Control Board. “The water situation is a little bit better, but not as good as we could hope.”
However, Kwan and other officials acknowledged that an atmospheric river currently dumping rain on the majority of the Golden State will improve the picture even more.
As of Monday, after a big storm trundled across California, the Northern Sierra 8-Station Index records 29.3 inches of precipitation for the water year that began last October. While the number seems slight, it represents a 7 percent increase from two weeks ago.
Before March, the water situation was dire and the state seemed poised to plunge back into drought only one year removed from one of the worse it had experienced in a century and a half of recorded data.
December, January and February — typically the wettest three months in California — all witnessed rain and snowfall significantly below average.
Almost no precipitation fell in February, with California entering March with only 18 inches, well short of the historical average.
The term Miracle March relates to 1991, when California entered the month was just 17 percent of average for snowpack at that time. After a series of enormous storms, which dumped 250 inches of snow in parts of the Sierra Nevada, that number jumped to 73 percent.
Close followers of the snowpack, which provides 70 percent of California’s water, will have to wait until April 1 to see the size of the recent contribution the last two storms have made, but they have undoubtedly helped.
“What a difference a couple of weeks can make in California hydrology,” said Steven Moore, vice-chair of the water control board.
California’s water picture is also in good shape because of the record wet year that came last winter, with 94.7 inches falling during the water year.
The enormous snowpack that resulted melted slowly, consistently replenishing the state’s system of reservoirs that provides water to residents throughout the dry summer.
Currently, six of the 12 major reservoirs are at 100 percent of historical average. Only Lake Oroville is significantly below and at 62 percent, it’s nothing to fret over with more rain on the way.
However, Lake Cachuma in Santa Barbara County is only at 45 percent of historical average.
“It’s a manifestation of a locally driven water supply issue compared to others that rely on Sierra runoff,” Moore said.
Lake Cachuma’s low-level is yet another setback for a region that has borne the brunt of natural disasters in the past year.
Santa Barbara and Ventura Counties, just north of Los Angeles, represent the only area that remains in extreme drought in California, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor.
The area was hit by the Thomas Fire in December, the largest wildland fire by acreage in the history of the state. In January, a much-needed storm visited the area, but due to the lack of vegetation stabilizing the topsoil, massive landslides ensued, killing 46 people and destroying entire neighborhoods.
Residents in proximity to the burn area were forced to evacuate again on Monday night into Tuesday, as public safety officials fear another round of slides would be set off by the heavy rain expected to last through the weekend.
Some Montebello residents particularly hard hit by the cycle of disasters are evacuating their homes for the fifth time this winter.
“We have no choice but to do this,” Santa Barbara Sheriff Bill Brown said. “It’s not worth risking lives to avoid evacuation.”