California storms: When a year’s worth of rain isn’t enough


As President Joe Biden heads to a sodden California Thursday, the state is trying to clean up after a series of storms dumped over a year’s worth of rainfall in under a month, causing at least 20 deaths and billions of dollars in damages. 

One set of calculations estimates 25 trillion gallons of water fell across the state during the first two weeks of storms, which started Dec. 27. The series of atmospheric rivers – at least nine – that brought the deluge took forecasters by surprise, causing flood warnings for 90% of Californians and forcing tens of thousands of residents to evacuate their homes. 

Why We Wrote This

After weeks of massive rainstorms, California and the American West are grappling with how to manage flood risks, rebound from drought, and make new plans for the Colorado River Basin.

The California Geological Survey has mapped almost 600 mudslides since the storms began – a result of heavy rain on top of loose, dry landscapes and burn scars throughout the fire-prone state. Despite the destruction, rain is much-needed relief after three years of a drought so profound it is transforming the state. The relief is tempered, though, by how much more water California still needs.

As of Wednesday, 10% of the state’s monitored wells registered above-normal levels. Nearly two-thirds were below normal. “There are still major parts of the state which have exhausted effectively their groundwater supplies,” says Professor Paul Ullrich at the University of California, Davis.

As President Joe Biden heads to a sodden California Thursday, the state is trying to clean up after a series of storms dumped over a year’s worth of rainfall in under a month, causing at least 20 deaths and billions of dollars in damages. 

One set of calculations estimates 25 trillion gallons of water fell across the state during the first two weeks of storms, which started Dec. 27. The series of atmospheric rivers – at least nine – that brought the deluge took forecasters by surprise, causing flood warnings for 90% of Californians and forcing tens of thousands of residents to evacuate their homes. 

The California Geological Survey has mapped almost 600 mudslides since the storms began – a result of heavy rain on top of loose, dry landscapes and burn scars throughout the fire-prone state. Despite the destruction, rain is much-needed relief after three years of a drought so profound it is transforming the state. The relief is tempered, though, by how much more water California still needs. 

Why We Wrote This

After weeks of massive rainstorms, California and the American West are grappling with how to manage flood risks, rebound from drought, and make new plans for the Colorado River Basin.

Is California still in a drought? 

Yes, and it’s been unusually extreme, including two straight years with zero water deliveries to most Central Valley agricultural contractors and the first-ever shortage declaration in the Lower Colorado River Basin.





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