After the Storm – Is California Still in a Drought?


Hailey Hill 

Science and Technology Editor

The first few weeks of 2023 brought an unusually strong series of storms to the entire state of California, flooding streets and even damaging buildings and infrastructure across the state. However, these storms also brought desperately needed rainwater to a state that has seen dangerously severe drought conditions for the past three years, with only 2.07 percent of the entire state of California being considered “drought-free” before the recent storm events. For the first time in recent memory, reservoirs and lakes are near capacity, rivers are flowing, and the landscapes are vibrant and green. So, does this surplus of water mean that the drought is finally over? 

Local water levels, at least, seem to indicate significant improvements that bring Santa Barbara County (SBC) away from the immediate danger of drought. According to data last updated on Jan. 29, the city of Goleta, which includes the UC Santa Barbara (UCSB) campus and the community of Isla Vista, has received 172 percent of the area’s average rainfall for the month of January. 

The data also shows that the city of Santa Barbara has recorded 229 percent of the city’s average January rainfall, and other cities in Santa Barbara County are reporting similarly significant surpluses. Overall, the county received 112 percent of its average rainfall total for an entire year. 

Local reservoir levels are similarly encouraging. Cachuma Reservoir is 98.6 percent full, and locals are enjoying the highest water levels seen in years at this popular spot for hiking and water activities. Jameson Reservoir, located northeast of Santa Barbara, has reached 100.7 percent capacity, so it is likely that some water will be released from the reservoir into tributary streams in order to prevent dam breaches or flooding in preparation for potential future storm events. Another local reservoir, Gibraltar Reservoir, is also nearing capacity following the recent rains and is 99.3 percent full as of January 29th. 

While these statistics show undeniable improvements in local drought conditions, experts warn that California as a whole is not completely out of drought quite yet. One season of “average” or even “above average” rainfall is not enough to compensate for years of extremely dry conditions. Additionally, since the parched land is not able to absorb large amounts of water quickly, much of the floodwaters from recent storms drained into the ocean, rendering it unusable. Another major indicator that California is still in drought is that two of California’s largest key reservoirs, Lake Shasta and Lake Oroville, are still below average levels — even after filling to some extent following the recent storms. 

In order for California’s historic drought to be alleviated completely, a few crucial things still need to happen. First, the state needs several strong and consistent rainy seasons, with storm events that deliver significant rainfall without the severity seen in recent weeks, which causes flooding and leads much of the rainwater to ultimately go to waste. Second, the snowpack in California’s eastern mountain ranges needs to continue to accumulate and remain at a high level, as the runoff from the melting snow during warmer months is a vital water source for many regions in California. 

Nonetheless, the significance of these recent storms cannot be overstated. As of Jan. 10, over half of California is now considered to be in a “moderate drought” or out of drought completely, classified only as “abnormally dry.” This is a welcome contrast from previous conditions when almost all of California was under the label of “extreme drought.”