‘Atmospheric river’ slams California again as state decides whether to keep drought restrictions

The “atmospheric river” returned with a vengeance Tuesday to Northern California, where snow piled up in the Sierra Nevada and coastal riverbanks were overwhelmed, flooding rural towns.

It’s at least the third major storm series to hit the region since the beginning of the year, building Sierra Nevada snowpack to heights not seen in years. Many of the state’s reservoirs are brimming and the earth around them is beginning to soak in the moisture.

The rain has ended the drought in much of Northern California, but it leaves state water officials with a dilemma.

California’s top water cops will decide Wednesday whether to extend the state’s emergency drought rules.

The staff of the State Water Resources Control Board has recommended against nixing the regulations, which have been in effect since June 2015 and would expire on Feb. 28.


If the five-person board agrees, urban water districts up and down the state would have to continue monthly reports on consumption, as well as “stress tests” to certify they have enough inventory to withstand three straight years of drought conditions.

The regulations would be extended for 270 days if approved at Wednesday’s meeting of the water board in Sacramento.

That meeting will occur amid conditions that are far from drought-like.

The latest Northern California storm system centered on the Bay Area but was widespread, dropping more than 7 inches of rain in Sonoma County to the north and 6 inches of rain in Santa Cruz County to the south and overwhelming coastal cities in between, according to the National Weather Service.

Flood warnings were issued for multiple counties in Northern California on Tuesday, with agencies expecting the Russian and Sacramento rivers to overflow their banks as the rain and melting snow flow down the mountains.

Highway 101 was flooded in Novato, a tree limb fell on a house in Monterey and a mudslide flipped a vehicle upside down in Santa Cruz County, the weather service said.

The San Benito County Sheriff’s Office issued a voluntary evacuation order for residents near Pacheco Creek after the creek flooded Tuesday morning. The area was flooded last month during a previous trio of storms.

Atmospheric rivers are key to California’s rainfall.

Atmospheric rivers – warm weather systems that flow east from Hawaii and the western Pacific – carry huge amounts of moisture and provide the majority of California’s water, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

The state has missed out on many of them in recent years, but not this past fall or current winter. California is on pace for one of its wettest years on record and has seen its drought outlook dramatically improve since October.

The biggest deficit remains in Southern California, where it rains more infrequently and the watershed system isn’t as vast for local reservoirs.

This week’s storms brought gusty winds and dropped more than 2 inches of rain in San Luis Obispo and Ventura counties and lesser amounts in Los Angeles County, the weather service reported. There is less runoff from rain in the Southland because the soil has to recover more moisture after years of drought, climatologists say.

Another storm that hits San Luis Obispo County late Thursday should begin raining on Ventura and Los Angeles counties by Friday and could drop up to an inch and a half of rain, the weather service said.

Friday’s storm is colder and is flowing in from the Gulf of Alaska, the weather service said.

Clear skies and warmer temperatures are expected over the weekend.

Joshua Emerson Smith of the San Diego Union-Tribune contributed to this report.

For breaking California news, follow @JosephSerna on Twitter.


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6:10 p.m.: This article was updated with information about the vote on the state’s drought rules.

12:15 p.m.: This article was updated with details on the effects in Northern California.

This article was originally published at 6:10 a.m.