Rain barely made a dent in California drought

Sunrise illuminates signs of former life amid the dry, steep banks of Lake Shasta, which was at just 42% of its average level on Sept. 30.
(Allen J. Schaben )

Fall has arrived, but in Southern California, warm, dry conditions remain. While the state has received some rain in recent weeks, the overall picture remains largely unchanged.

Q: How did we do in October?

Last month was the third-warmest October in California since officials began keeping records more than a century ago, according to government climatologists.

The average temperature statewide in October was 64.5 degrees, less than one degree below the all-time record set in 2003, the National Climatic Data Center reported.


Q: How warm has California been so far this year?

So warm, it’s a record. In fact, 2014 is likely to be California’s hottest year since 1895, when temperature record-keeping began. Between January and October, the average temperature across the state was 63.8 degrees. That’s a record for that time period, and more than four degrees higher than the average — 59.6 degrees.

Q: What about the drought?

Recent rainfall in Northern California improved stream flows, raised some river levels and spurred the growth of small plants and grasses. But overall, it barely made a dent.

The early November U.S. Drought Monitor map showed the percentage of the state in severe drought had only slightly improved, from covering 95.04% of the state at the end of September to 94.42%.

The percentage of California under exceptional drought conditions — considered the most extreme — improved, falling from 58.41% of the state on Sept. 30 to 55.08% this week.

Q: How are our reservoirs doing?

They’re still declining. Lakes Shasta and Oroville, the biggest reservoirs in the state, now contain less than half the amount of water that they hold on average for this time of year. Lake Shasta supplies the federal water system, while Lake Oroville feeds the State Water Project, which reaches Southern California.


Q: How has the rain been in Los Angeles in the last year?

Pitiful. Downtown Los Angeles has received only 41% of the average rainfall received in the last 137 years. More than half of the rain in the last 12 months came in only one storm, which dumped 3.35 inches of rain in the last three days of February, said William Patzert, climatologist with NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

Q: We’ve heard for a long time that a wet El Niño storm system during the winter could help with the drought. Is that true?

Though a strong El Niño seemed promising in the early spring, its prospects have begun to look increasingly dim.


Scientists now say they think an El Niño is likely to form in the Pacific Ocean, but it probably would be a small to moderate one. Those El Niños are far from guaranteed to help usher significant rainfall to Southern California.

In fact, L.A. has had some very dry years that also saw El Niños.

“These are usually not very promising in terms of winter rainfall, and that’s really too bad because we need some drought relief,” Patzert said of weaker El Niños.

Reporting by Joseph Serna, Hector Becerra, Veronica Rocha, Rong-Gong Lin II and Bettina Boxall