California has 'a shot out of the drought' if El Niño rain persists

With a couple of weeks of rain and snow behind them and more on the horizon for the Sierra Nevada in Northern California, state water officials expressed cautious hope that this El Niño season could lift California out of its historic drought.

“The recent rains have put us on a good trajectory to perhaps have a shot out of the drought if it were to continue at the current rate,” said Doug Carlson, a spokesman with the California Department of Water Resources.

As of Wednesday, the northern Sierra Nevada had received 114% of the average rainfall typical during strong El Niño years, while the central Sierra Nevada in the San Joaquin basin was doing even better, having received 122% of average rainfall typical during big El Niño years.

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The number was slightly below average for the southern Sierra Nevada, the state reported.

But not all precipitation is the same, officials caution. The mountains need snow, and lots of it, that can accumulate and slowly melt through the spring and summer, feeding the state’s streams, rivers and lakes.

“Right now, we’re doing better than last year. But nowhere near the 150% of normal that we had been predicting,” Carlson said. “It remains to be seen if we’re going to be end-of-the-drought happy or better-than-last-year happy.”

Many of the state’s major reservoirs are below historical averages -- Lake Shasta is at 40% when the average is 60%, while Lake Oroville is at 34% compared with the historical average of 54%.

“We have such a huge deficit, it’s a very large number we have to recoup,” said Craig Shoemaker, a meteorologist in Sacramento.

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But Shoemaker said the pattern for the first part of the year so far has been good.

Though the storms hitting the Bay Area, Lake Tahoe and beyond are typical for the winter, they’re carrying more moisture because of El Niño, Shoemaker said.

Another significant rain storm was expected in Northern California over the weekend, he said.

“Every storm we get is a little bit stronger than it would have been without El Niño,” Shoemaker said. “We’re off to a good start. We just need it to continue for the rest of the winter.”

For breaking California news, follow @JosephSerna.

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