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Powerful Storms Make Dent In California's Historic Drought


Here's something we haven't been able to report in at least five years. The snowpack in California's Sierra Nevada is well above average. Most reservoirs in the state are at or near capacity. That's thanks to a series of powerful winter storms that are helping ease drought concerns. But NPR's Kirk Siegler reports there is reason to still be cautious.

KIRK SIEGLER, BYLINE: You can think of California's drought like a budget deficit. When you have historically dry years like 2013 and 2014 when basically no revenue was coming in, it's going to take you a long time to climb your way out of the hole. And these huge storms over the past week or so have kind of been like a big infusion of cash. It's welcome cash, by the way.

DEMETRI POLYZOS: It is certainly chipping away.

SIEGLER: Demetri Polyzos is a water supply engineer with Southern California's Metropolitan Water. It's the largest municipal water supplier in the country.

POLYZOS: We didn't go into this drought overnight. We're certainly not going to get out of it overnight. So - but it's definitely helping put a dent in the drought.

SIEGLER: About a third of California's water supply comes from the snowpack in the Sierra Nevada, and today across those mountains, state officials recorded the average water content at 158 percent above normal. Just two years ago, a similar reading found it at 5 percent of normal.

So this is a big deal. Like in much of the West, California's cities and its multibillion-dollar farming industry depend on snow-fed reservoirs to get through the hot summer. The state's climatologist, Michael Anderson, is cautiously optimistic that most of California is moving out of drought. But he says some of these storms brought more rain than they did snow. Plus, it came all at once.

MICHAEL ANDERSON: In the bigger picture, we definitely made ground in some of our deficits. And that's fantastic, but we didn't get it everywhere.

SIEGLER: And when it comes to that budget deficit, there's one more thing we've got to mention, especially here in drier southern California. Drought experts will tell you that when we get big storms like these, the system wasn't designed to store all of it.

And you can see this everywhere, even right behind our studios at NPR West. Here is this old creek bed that I'm standing next to. It's now a concrete storm channel, and it's designed to safely push all this rainwater straight out to the ocean, not to reservoirs or into the aquifer. Kirk Siegler, NPR News, Culver City. [POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: In this story, we say that the water content in California’s snowpack is now 158 percent above normal. In fact, it is 158 percent of normal.]

(SOUNDBITE OF THE JAM SONG, "ONLY STARTED") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Corrected: January 11, 2017 at 11:00 PM CST
In this story, we say that the water content in California's snowpack is now 158 percent above normal. In fact, it is 158 percent of normal.
Kirk Siegler
As a correspondent on NPR's national desk, Kirk Siegler covers rural life, culture and politics from his base in Boise, Idaho.