Space & Innovation

El Nino Has Helped Fill California's Biggest Reservoir

One of the strongest El Niños on record has had some major drought-busting benefits in northern California. →

Californians, say hello to an old friend. After four years of drought, the state's largest reservoir is again a reservoir instead of a mudpit.

Lake Shasta, located in the northern half of the state, was down to just 29 percent of normal storage capacity as recently as December. But one of the strongest El Niño's on record has helped steer rain to the reservoir as well as much of the rest of northern California. The result is a sight not seen in quite some time: Lake Shasta is at 109 percent of its historical capacity for this time of year, the first time that's happened in three years.

You can see the progress of this rainy season thanks to Landsat images put together by NASA's Earth Observatory.

California Drought by the Numbers

The rest of California, however, hasn't been quite as lucky. The end of March marks the tail end of California's rainy season and even optimists would struggle to call the this year an overall success.

El Niño helped steer enough rain and snow to the the northern part of California to help cut into the multi-year drought that's plagued the state. Southern California hasn't received nearly as much precipitation and more than a third of the state is still in the most dire category of drought. Dry conditions have started to creep back into the southeast corner of the state.

Southern California needs up to 12 inches of additional precipitation to shake the drought. There is likely to be a blast of rain and snow next week, but the odds of ameliorating the drought completely at this point are slim to none.

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If you needed a reminder that not all El Niño impacts are a given, this winter has certainly provided it. The southern tier of the U.S. from California to Florida has increased odds of more rain during El Niño years. Yet this winter, El Niño appears to have forsaken the western portion of that region.

In addition to dry conditions persisting in southern California, Arizona and New Mexico have been put on dry ice. This March was New Mexico's driest March on record and Arizona's ninth-driest so at least southern Californians have some neighbors to commiserate with.

There could be other factors beyond El Niño at play driving the drought in California and other regions of the western U.S. Recent research shows that California's wet seasons have become hotter and drier since 1949. Whether it's due to climate change (and if the trend continues) remains to be seen, but as Daniel Swain, author of the research, told Climate Central last week, "We need to be considering the extremes in addition to changes in the mean."

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A veritable zoo's worth of wildlife frequents a small urban makeshift watering hole in California, which is now in its fourth year of record-breaking drought. Camera trap photos are catching the animals unaware, and are adding to the growing body of evidence that larger carnivores, such as this coyote, exist in urban settings. While the man-made pond looks to be surrounded by a large forest, it's actually just a very small wooded corner of bustling


, California's eighth largest city. "We have single coyotes and pairs making regular appearances here," Don Mitchell, who constructed the watering hole, told Discovery News. "The good thing is that they're well fed, as opposed to being scrawny and traveling in packs, where they might be inclined to snatch a small dog, for example."

California Drought by the Numbers

This deer family was also drawn to the water, which stays aerated and fresh thanks to a pump installed by Mitchell, who is president of the

Sequoyah Hills Oak Knoll Neighborhood Association

. The coyotes must not have been around, as they are known to prey on deer, as well as on smaller animals, like rodents.

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A lone deer appears to be posing for a selfie in this candid shot. The coyotes again seem to be absent from the area, given the deer's relaxed, yet alert, stance. Referring to carnivores in urban settings, Stan Gehrt of Ohio State University said, "The coyote is the test case for other animals. Raccoons, skunks, foxes -- they've already been able to penetrate the urban landscape pretty well. The coyote is the most recent and largest."

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In recent years, the population of crows and ravens in East Bay cities like Oakland and Berkeley has skyrocketed. As Rusty Scalf, a Golden Gate Audubon birding instructor who lives in Berkeley, told the organization

Bay Nature

, "Ravens used to be unheard of in the city, but now they're all over the place." Experts attribute the increase to fewer predators of ravens, their ability to adapt to urban lighting and settings, temperature increases in cities due to heat absorption of buildings and sidewalks, and protection under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act.

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Even a bat was snapped at the city pond, flying over two deer. While bats can contract diseases, such as rabies, they are vital to ecosystems, helping to curb mosquito prevalence and often serving as pollinators. A dozen species of bats live in the San Francisco Bay Area. Depending on the species, some roost in colonies, and others roost alone. Bats tend to be loyal to their favorite watering holes. They will swoop down on the water, capturing liquid with their tiny pink tongues.

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For several years, wild turkeys have been expanding into urban neighborhoods in many parts of the country, including Northern California cities. According to the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, the state's wild turkeys now occupy about 18 percent of the state. In this case, the turkey is a welcome visitor, basking by the man-made pond. For those who don't want turkeys on their property, however, the state advises that turkeys "typically will not enter yards with dogs" and can usually be steered out of one's path with "an open umbrella."

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Over 30 species of raptors, also referred to as birds of prey, live in California. Mitchell believes that this is a great-horned owl, coming in for a landing. Just after the winter holidays, female great horned owls settle into nests to begin incubating their two eggs. Hopefully this individual will be parenting a family of chicks in about 4 months.

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This image is perhaps the most rare and valuable of the "critter cam" collection. Mitchell thinks it is a flammulated owl bathing. No other such image is known to exist. The

Cornell Lab of Ornithology

describes this species,

Psiloscops flammeolus

, as being "a small owl of mountain pine forests." Clearly this owl did not get that memo, as it wound up in urban Oakland. According to the organization Audubon, the California drought has disrupted raptor and owl breeding seasons. At least this owl has a chance of reproducing.


National Wildlife Federation

reports, "Raccoons are able to get food that other animals cannot, because they have nimble, almost hand-like paws that can grasp at tree branches, nuts, fruits, and even, the lids of garbage cans." These nocturnal mammals, particularly when young, can also be very playful, as these two show.

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Mountain lions -- also known as cougars, panthers or pumas -- are majestic big cats that are native to North America. More than half of California is mountain lion habitat. They generally exist wherever deer are found, so it's no surprise that the deer family photographed at the pond were nowhere in site as this mountain lion came in for a drink.

The urban skunk population has exploded in recent years, leading some to even jokingly refer to the United States as the "

United Skunks of America

." Milder winters, lack of water in their usual habitat, and their ability to adapt to human settings are just a few reasons for the increasing numbers.

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Mitchell told Discovery News that his critter cam snapped both grey (seen here) and red foxes. They are typically shy and fearful animals, according to the California Department of Fish and Wildlife. A

California Living Museum

fact sheet mentions that the grey fox is the most common fox in California, "mainly populating coastal or mountain forests at lower elevations." "Their main diet consists of small rodents, birds and berries, but they will also eat insects, eggs, acorns and fungi."

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Mitchell believes this is a flock of band-tailed pigeons. This is California's only native pigeon. It is a close relative of the extinct passenger pigeon. Since 1968, populations of this species have been declining by a rate of about 2 percent each year, according to the

North American Breeding Bird Survey

. Habitat loss and a low reproductive rate mean that they are slow to recover from threats. The birds often just produce one chick per year.

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Over the years, Mitchell has watched the same deer and turkeys, monitoring their progress and growth. He proudly mentioned that this female turkey came "with two babies." The watering hole has also offered a case study of tolerance among different animal populations. Clearly deer are not very bothered by turkeys, as shown by the deer here as it grazes peacefully next to the three turkeys. Thanks to the pump, the urban pond does not have to be refreshed that often, helping to conserve water. Mitchell and others in California, however, are hopeful that the increasing El Nino (a weather pattern involving warming Pacific Ocean waters) will bring plenty of rainfall to the parched state in the months to come.

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