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California's Drought-Plagued Reservoirs Are Making a Comeback

The state’s two largest reservoirs have finally exceeded their historical averages.

A bridge lies submerged north of Sacramento after recent heavy rains. (California Department of Water Resources)

It wasn’t long ago that California’s two biggest reservoirs were so depleted they were suitable less for water sports than racing a jet-powered dune buggy. Here was their dismal appearance last summer:

California Department of Water Resources

Contrast that to what Lake Oroville looks like this week:

California Department of Water Resources

Credit the recent storms that rolled in on the back of El Niño for this startling transformation. Indeed, thanks to this so-called “March Miracle” weather, Shasta and Oroville have finally exceeded their historical average levels for this date, according to the state’s Department of Water Resources. And the waters could continue rising in the weeks ahead, writes the Los Angeles Times:

“It’s happened a little quicker than I personally thought,” [DWR spokesman Doug] Carlson said. “It would appear the [seasonal storms] have really achieved what they historically do, which is deliver a lot of rainfall to the mountains.”

Neither reservoir has reached its historical average in nearly three years, data show....

If the soggy month continues, both reservoirs could actually fill to the brim by April, officials say. Neither reservoir has been full since about the beginning of the drought, officials said.

It’s anyone’s guess whether 2016 will see a break in the drought, which has persisted for almost 5 years. While Northern California is doing well with reservoir levels, but many places in the mid-to-southern reaches of the state remain below average:

California Department of Water Resources

The north/south hydro-divide looks likely to endure through the state’s next possible rainfall, which right now is predicted to occur Sunday through Monday. Several inches could drop north of the Bay Area. But SoCal looks like it’ll miss the sodden party, to judge from this 7-day precipitation forecast from the Weather Prediction Center:

About the Author

  • John Metcalfe
    John Metcalfe is CityLab’s Bay Area bureau chief, based in Oakland. His coverage focuses on climate change and the science of cities.