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California storms nearly over after causing extensive damage

President Joe Biden is scheduled to visit the worst-hit areas on Thursday. Experts will now determine whether the rain has ended three years of drought

Tormentas en California
Ryan Orosco carrying his child outside his home in Brentwood, California.JOSE CARLOS FAJARDO (AP)

The ninth in a three-week series of major winter storms was churning through California on Monday night and the early hours of Tuesday, while heavy snow continued to fall across the Sierra. The University of California Berkeley Central Sierra Snow Lab tweeted Monday morning that it had recorded 49.6 inches (126 cm) of new snow since Friday. A backcountry avalanche warning was issued for the central Sierra, including the greater Tahoe area.

President Joe Biden is expected to travel to California’s central coast on Thursday to visit areas that have been impacted by the extreme weather. The White House said in a statement Monday that the president would visit with first responders and state and local officials, survey recovery efforts and assess what additional federal support is needed.

A barrage of atmospheric river storms has been dumping rain and snow on California since late December, cutting power to thousands, swamping roads, unleashing debris flows, triggering landslides and forcing the evacuation of tens of thousands of people.

But meteorologist are expecting this to be the last storm in the series. Mostly dry days were in the week’s forecast, though some parts of northern California could see more rain at midweek. The big question that everyone is now asking is how much of an impact these weather events have had on the chronic drought that California has been experiencing for the better part of four years.

Water floods part of a road by the San Ysidro creek on Jameson Lane near the closed Highway 101 in Montecito on January 10.
Water floods part of a road by the San Ysidro creek on Jameson Lane near the closed Highway 101 in Montecito on January 10.Ringo H.W. Chiu (AP)

With the end in sight, state authorities will now assess the damage. At least 20 people have died in recent weeks in storm-related incidents, and a five-year-old boy remained missing after being swept out of his mother’s car by floodwaters in San Luis Obispo County.

Governor Gavin Newsom on Monday signed an executive order to further bolster the state’s emergency storm response and help communities that suffered damage. President Joe Biden declared a major disaster in the state and ordered federal aid to supplement local recovery efforts in places like Merced, Sacramento and Santa Cruz counties, in the central and northern parts of the state.

These maps show a reduction in the severity of the drought in the state of California. Left: data from January 12. Right: data from October 2022.
These maps show a reduction in the severity of the drought in the state of California. Left: data from January 12. Right: data from October 2022.US Drought Monitor

The series of storms caused by a phenomena known as atmospheric rivers also left some good news. The reservoir system in California is showing water levels not seen in years. This network, which typically feeds off the rainy season that runs from November to March, represents 60% of the water supply for a state that is home to 40 million people.

The network is made up of 15 reservoirs, of which nine are already above the average level registered in recent years. The most important one of them all is Lake Shasta, located to the north, which is currently at 50% of its capacity.

Experts have asked for a little more time to assess whether the string of storms has ended the drought affecting California for more than three years. For now, the system that monitors the drought, run by the federal Department of Agriculture, is showing a drastic change compared to the last two weeks. The map indicates that 95% of the state is now experiencing a moderate drought. Extreme drought is found only in 0.32% of the territory, down dramatically from 41% three months ago. The most severe category, exceptional drought, affected 16% of California. This week it is 0%.

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