Northern California gets a big drink, but the state is still thirsty

The storm system that soaked much of Northern California over the weekend didn't end the state's punishing drought. But it just may have kept it out of the record books.

"We're out of the cellar, I think," said chief state hydrologist Maury Roos, a veteran of California droughts. "It's certainly a much brighter outlook than it was at the end of January."


A pineapple express of tropical moisture from the Pacific Ocean dumped up to 10 inches of rain on the Sierra Nevada foothills, dropped about 20 inches on a couple of spots north of San Francisco and coated high elevations of the northern Sierra with 2 to 4 feet of snow.

It was enough to prompt scattered flash-flood warnings, boost the state's dismal snowpack to 28% of average and add 17 feet to the levels of dangerously low Folsom Lake on the American River.

But it wasn't nearly enough for anyone to call an end to a drought that is focusing national attention on California.

"We're still way behind the curve," said Jeanine Jones, deputy drought manager for the state Department of Water Resources. "We need more like this."

Still, the drenching will green parched grazing lands, help migrating coho salmon and steelhead trout on the North Coast, and reverse the decline of some major reservoirs. Lake Oroville, the biggest reservoir in the State Water Project system, rose 7 feet. Storage in Folsom, which supplies communities east of Sacramento, jumped from 32% of average for the date to 41%.

Precipitation totals that had been threatening to sink below the lows of 1976-77 in crucial Northern California watersheds got enough of a bump to ease worries that this rainy season would set a drought record. "This is a step in the right direction," Jones said.

The storm system arrived Thursday, took a bit of a break and then got into high gear Saturday and Sunday, spreading from the coast across the Sacramento Valley to the Sierra. Rainfall amounts varied widely, from a fraction of an inch in parts of Monterey County to almost 14 inches in Guerneville in Sonoma County and nearly 21 inches at Middle Peak in Marin County.

A pineapple express is a version of an atmospheric river, which can transport enormous amounts of water vapor that turn to rain and snow when they hit West Coast mountains. Researchers at Scripps Institution of Oceanography and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration have estimated that atmospheric rivers contribute roughly 30% to 45% of California's precipitation.

Despite the deluge that hit parts of Sonoma County, water managers there said the overall picture remains grim. Healdsburg and Cloverdale are among the communities that state health officials have warned could run out of water by late spring. Both have declared shortages and imposed mandatory conservation measures.

Grant Davis, general manager of the Sonoma County Water Agency, said that although the recent rains provided "a bit of relief," those towns are "by no means going to be able to pull back from their water conservation efforts.... We basically need six or seven similar storms like the one that we had."

National Weather Service forecasters say another storm is headed for the West Coast at the end of the week, but it will be centered in the Pacific Northwest, weakening as it dips below the Oregon border.