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CA Celebrates Water-Filled Reservoirs With a Wary Eye on El Niño



After years of severe drought, California's reservoirs ended the water season at 128% of their historical average on Sept. 30, 2023. Pictured is San Luis Reservoir. (Bureau of Reclamation File)
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SACRAMENTO — California ended its “miracle” water year on Saturday with enough rain and snow to fill the state’s reservoirs to 128% of their historical average, making it among the wettest years in recorded state history.

That’s a welcome boon to a state that has spent much of the past dozen years in a deep drought, forcing state leaders to grapple with how the state should share and manage its water in the future. A series of winter storms in early 2023 busted the state’s most recent dry spell.

At the same time, state officials are keeping a close eye on El Niño, which could deliver rain and snow in volumes that trigger flooding, mudslides, and deaths.

State officials measured 33.56 inches of precipitation through the end of September. California’s “water year” begins annually on Oct. 1 so it can include all of the fall and winter months when California gets the bulk of its rain and snow. The state depends on those wet months to fill its reservoirs that supply water for drinking, farming, and environmental uses throughout the state.

Those reservoirs dipped to dangerously low levels in in recent years because of an extreme drought. That prompted water restrictions on homes and businesses and curtailed deliveries to farmers. It also threatened already endangered species of fish, including salmon, that need cold water in the rivers to survive.

State Water Project Holding 27.4 Million Acre-Feet of Water

But the State Water Project — which includes 30 reservoirs and storage facilities and provides water to 27 million people — reported 27.4 million acre-feet in its reservoirs as of Sept. 30. One acre-foot of water is enough to supply two families of four for a year.

“This was as close to a miracle year as you can get,” said Karla Nemeth, director of the California Department of Water Resources.

The reservoirs were helped by a series of nine strong storms that hit California over the winter. Those storms carried so much rain and snow they were known as “atmospheric rivers.” They caused widespread flooding throughout the state and were blamed for multiple deaths.

The storms also dumped tons of snow on the mountains. The state snowpack on April 1 was 237% above its historical average. It’s just the fourth time since 1950 that the state’s snowpack exceeded 200% of average, according to Michael Anderson, the state’s climatologist.

All of that snow melted in the spring and summer, filling rushing rivers and reservoirs. Water levels at Lake Oroville rose 240 feet between Dec. 1, 2022, and the end of the snowmelt period. That’s the largest increase in storage in one season since the reservoir opened in 1968, according to Ted Craddock, deputy director for the State Water Project.

Water Released to Make Room for El Niño Storms

State and federal officials will have to drain some of the reservoirs to make room for more water that’s expected to come this year. The state’s rainy season could be complicated by El Niño  — the natural, temporary, and occasional warming of part of the Pacific Ocean.

El Niño affects weather patterns around the world. California typically gets more rain and snow during an El Niño year. This year’s El Niño has a 56% chance to be considered strong and a 25% chance to reach supersized levels, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

The potential for more strong storms this year, particularly along the coast, “keeps me awake a little bit at night,” said Gary Lippner, deputy director for flood management and dam safety with the California Department of Water Resources.

“We just do not have extensive flood systems on the coast of California,” he said. “That’s an area we’re paying particular attention to.”

Wildfires Smaller, Rarer This Year

All of the rain and snow this year could have played a part in what has so far been a smaller wildfire season.

Wildfires exploded in size during the drought in part because of the super dry conditions. So far this year, just over 476 square miles have burned in California. That’s well below the five-year average of 2,031 square miles, according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire.

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