LOS ANGELES — California water agencies that serve 27 million people will see an increased allocation of supplies from the state after a series of winter storms boosted reservoirs and snowpack, officials announced Thursday.
Less than two months after the Department of Water Resources said it could only give 5% of requested supplies to the 29 agencies that rely on the State Water Project, the department increased its allocation to 30%. The State Water Project is a complex system of reservoirs, canals and dams that acts as a major component of California's water system.
Officials said the allocation could change as the rest of the wet season develops. But the news marks a significant turnaround for California, which has been mired in extreme drought conditions for more than three years. Last year's final allocation was just 5%.
"We are pleased that we can increase the allocation now and provide more water to local water agencies," DWR Director Karla Nemeth said in a statement. "These storms made clear the importance of our efforts to modernize our existing water infrastructure for an era of intensified drought and flood. Given these dramatic swings, these storm flows are badly needed to refill groundwater basins and support recycled water plants."
The storms came as something of a surprise after officials warned residents to brace for another dry winter driven by La Niña, a climate pattern in the tropical Pacific often associated with arid conditions in California.
Instead, a series of nine powerful atmospheric rivers dropped a deluge on the state, spurring floods and landslides but also increasing reservoirs and snowpack levels. As of Thursday, the statewide snowpack was 216% of normal for the date.
The state's largest reservoirs also saw some drought recovery, with Lake Shasta at 55% of capacity on Thursday and Lake Oroville at 63% — up from 32% and 30%, respectively, just one month ago, state data shows.
The reservoirs gained a combined 1.62 million acre-feet of water in storage as a direct result of the winter storms, or roughly enough to provide water to 5.6 million households for a year, according to the DWR.
But officials warned that there are two more months in California's wet season, and dry conditions could develop once again. The latest seasonal outlook from the National Weather Service's Climate Prediction Center shows equal chances of wetness or dryness in most of California through April. The outlook for Southern California leans toward dryness.
Surface water conditions aren't the only metric that feeds into California's drought. Groundwater — or the state's system of underground aquifers — needs more than a handful of storms to recharge, especially after years of persistent overpumping.
What's more, Southern California's other major water source, the Colorado River, didn't benefit from the atmospheric river storms. The river is a water lifeline for 40 million people in the West, but climate change and overuse have pushed it to a breaking point.
Water managers will monitor how the rest of the wet season develops to determine whether further actions may be needed later in winter, DWR said.
There's no denying the storms made a difference, however. The latest update from the U.S. Drought Monitor shows that all of California has moved out of its two worst categories — exceptional and extreme drought. Just three months ago, 43% of the state was under those classifications.