- The first four months of 2022 were the driest on record in California.
- California is about to enter its dry season.
- Much of the Southwest and Plains have been much drier than usual, fueling drought.
California had its driest start to a year since the late 19th century, raising drought and wildfire concerns heading into the summer.
In data released Monday, NOAA’s National Centers for Environmental Information found January through April precipitation in the state was the lowest on record dating to 1895.
The statewide precipitation of 3.25 inches was only 25% of average, topping the previous record-dry January through April from 2013, according to NOAA statistics.
This is troubling on several fronts.
First, this unusually dry stretch happened during much of the state’s wet season, when the majority of precipitation usually falls.
San Francisco picks up over 90% of its annual precipitation from November through April, when the jet stream typically pushes moisture-laden Pacific storms into the West Coast.
Secondly, California is headed into its dry season.
From late spring through early fall, the jet stream moves well north, and aside from occasional, isolated summer thunderstorms, much of the state is dry.
During the dry season, runoff from snowmelt in the high country – particularly the Sierra – typically recharges the state’s rivers, reservoirs and aqueducts, supplying almost one-third of the state’s water for cities and agriculture.
But this year, the snowpack was paltry, began melting early and wasn’t generating much runoff.
According to the May 6 update by the California Department of Water Resources (CDWR), the state’s snowpack peaked March 8 at only 57% of average and over three weeks earlier than usual.
While some more recent systems dumped modest snow in the Sierra, the state’s snowpack was only 21% of average as of May 9.
And the modest snowmelt that’s happening is seeping into dry ground rather than running off into reservoirs, according to Desert Research Institute climatologist Dan McEvoy.
According to the CDWR update, the state’s reservoirs were at 71% of average storage for early May, in better overall shape than this time in 2015, during California’s exceptional mid-2010s drought.
But California’s two largest reservoirs are at “critically low levels,” according to the May 5 Drought Monitor summary. Shasta Lake is at its lowest early May level since the drought of 1976-77, while Lake Oroville is only 70% of its early May average.
California is in its third year of the latest drought, which was accelerated in early 2020.
Given the upcoming dry season, the state will have to wait until late fall or winter for significant drought relief to arrive.
In late April, the Metro Water District of Southern California issued an unprecedented water emergency emergency, with outdoor watering restricted to one day a week in parts of the Los Angeles Basin beginning June 1.
California is one of many western states facing a difficult summer of wildfires given the widespread multi-year drought.
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