Federal forecasters are the bearers of bad news to California, a state ready for a significant break in its oppressive drought.
According to the latest Drought Monitor, 78 percent of the state is currently in extreme or worse drought, down from 82 percent reported three months before. Thirty-nine of the the state is in exceptional drought, up from 32 percent reported last week, and as David Miskus with the Climate Prediction Center explained in the latest Seasonal Drought Outlook, more degradation is likely through at least the end of April.
“In California, the wet climatology for February and March (especially in the south) and a tilt of the odds toward above-normal precipitation in the monthly and seasonal outlooks across the southern half of the state should bring improvement there,” he wrote in Thursday’s update. “But it must be emphasized that improvement is not elimination, and that most of the state will still be in drought to some degree by the end of April.”
Miskus said the burst of precipitation reported across the state from late-November to early-December, helped ease drought conditions, but Mother Nature has been relatively calm and dry ever since.
Miskus added, “Since December 20, however, precipitation has been nearly non-existent across much of California and Nevada, halting the favorable moisture conditions that had raised hopes for additional winter drought improvement in California. In addition, the mild winter weather has allowed most of the precipitation to fall as rain instead of snow in higher elevations, reducing the snow water content of Cascade and Sierra Nevada sites to less than 40 percent of normal.”
The USDA’s first water supply forecast of the year echoed Miskus’ forecast, predicting a normal water supply for much of the West with the exception of California. The Southwest, Sierra Nevada region and Pacific Northwest are also expected to be drier than normal.
"Right now, snowpack and streamflow forecasts look pretty close to normal for much of the West," National Water and Climate Center hydrologist Cara McCarthy said. "A couple of major regional exceptions are the Southwest and California, which are unusually dry, once again."
However, McCarthy suggests that this forecast could still change.
"This is just the first forecast of the season; everything can change," McCarthy said. "A weak El Niño is forecast for this year, which might play a part in coming months."
Although variable, El Niño conditions tend to deliver more than normal winter precipitation to the Southwest and less to the Pacific Northwest.
Just how much rain will it take to break California’s drought? In December, data from NADA showed it will take 11 trillion gallons of water for the state to recover from the drought. A report from VOX adds every part of the state would need more than 100 percent of normal precipitation to simply bring total precipitation over the last four years to the bottom 20 percent historically. The San Joaquin Valley, a key agricultural area, would need a near-record 27.74 inches by September.