2017 Could Be the Year California’s Drought Comes to an End

Monster winter storms have lead to mudslides and flooding — but could also mean the end of a statewide drought that's heading into its sixth year.

California has suffered a statewide drought since 2011, what some have called the worst drought in more than a thousand years, but powerful winter storms since the beginning of the year could mean it's finally over.

A weather system called an atmospheric river has swept huge amounts of moisture across the Pacific, dumping it on California and recharging reservoirs that have seen years of deficits.

"Atmospheric rivers occur every winter, it's just a matter of where they occur," Marty Ralph, director of the Center for Western Weather and Water Extremes at UC San Diego, told the San Francisco Chronicle. "The last two years they've been missing in California. In the past three months we've had a large number."

Rain and snow from multiple Pacific storms were expected to fall into Thursday. The National Weather Service on Wednesday said flooding had occurred or was expected on several rivers in California through the end of the week.

"The best news of all is that the Sierra Nevada snowpack has suddenly jumped well ahead of average for the date - something we haven't seen in quite a few years," said Daniel Swain, a climate scientist at UCLA and author of the the California Weather Blog.

Just last week mountain snowpack was measured at 70 percent of normal for this time of year. On Wednesday, snowpack was measured at 158 percent of normal. California relies on snowpack to provide drinking water and irrigation in warmer months when rainfall is limited.

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"In the very northern part of California, yes, the drought is over," Ralph told the Chronicle. "In the south, not so much." About ⅔ of the state remains in drought, largely in the southern part of the state.

In the north, the "groundwater deficit caused by years of low precipitation, high temperatures, and active pumping by humans remains enormous," Swain said. "Most of the water used in California's urban areas actually comes from geographically distant regions, including the northern California watersheds that have done so well, precipitation-wise, over the past couple of months. On the other hand, ecosystems and groundwater aquifers really do depend on local precipitation, and there's still a long way to go before the drought is broken in Southern California in that regard."

The effects of the drought go beyond the the environmental concerns. A new report from the Pacific Institute and the Environmental Justice Coalition for Water "found that low-income households, people of color, and communities already burdened with environmental pollution suffered the most severe impacts."

The report recommended a number of steps for local and state agencies take to safeguard water supplies for future droughts, including creating contingency plans for water shortages and increasing oversight of public and private wells to protect the state's residents, including disadvantaged communities, from a lack of household drinking water and price hikes related to shortages.

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