Santa Cruz County no longer in drought conditions after storms, report says

Snow last week in Boulder Creek.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Conditions in Santa Cruz County are now “abnormally dry,” the level between no drought and moderate drought, according to the latest estimate from the U.S. Drought Monitor. With an enormous snowpack, the Sierra Nevada are also not considered to be in drought as all of California has seen unusually heavy precipitation since late December.

Have something to say? Lookout welcomes letters to the editor, within our policies, from readers. Guidelines here.

California’s remarkably wet winter has helped ease drought conditions considerably, with large swaths of the state — including Santa Cruz and the rest of the state’s coastal counties, plus much of the snow-capped Sierra Nevada — no longer considered to be in drought, according to federal officials.

The latest estimate from the U.S. Drought Monitor, released Thursday, shows almost 17% of the Golden State has exited drought conditions completely, with another 34% now classified as “abnormally dry.” That means less than half of the state remains under drought conditions, which range from moderate to exceptional drought, according to the monitor.

“Abnormally dry,” the level between no drought conditions and moderate drought, is where most of Santa Cruz County sits.

“It’s pretty amazing, the changes, not only over the past week but going back to December of 2022,” said Brad Pugh, one of the authors of the Drought Monitor. At the end of last year, no part of the state was classified as out of drought and less than 1% was considered abnormally dry.

Officials attributed the development to the recent winter storms that dropped heaps of rain and snow in several regions, including Southern California and the Sierra, as well as the series of nine atmospheric river storms that hammered California in January.

“The Pacific weather systems of this week and last week added to copious precipitation that has been received from atmospheric rivers since December 2022, especially over California and states to the east,” the latest update said.

According to their mapping, which includes data on hydrology, soil moisture and other climate indexes, “central California’s Sierra Nevada mountains and foothills are now free of drought and abnormal dryness for the first time since January 2020.”

The rain and snow arrived on the heels of California’s driest three years on record, which contributed to dramatically low reservoir levels, urgent conservation orders and a statewide drought emergency declaration. That declaration, issued by Gov. Gavin Newsom in October 2021, remained in place as of Thursday.

But there is no denying the moisture made a difference. Statewide snowpack is 192% of normal, according to state data. In the Southern Sierra, it’s 232% of normal. Snowpack typically provides about one-third of California’s water supply.

Snowpack was so substantial that the Yosemite Valley broke a 54-year-old daily record on Tuesday, when 40 inches of fresh powder fell, surpassing the 36-inch record set in February 1960. As much as 15 feet fell in some parts of the park over the course of the storm.

Reservoirs have also seen a boost this winter, with Lake Shasta and Lake Oroville now at 60% and 73% of capacity, respectively, up from 34% and 37% two months ago. More rain and snow are expected next week and possibly throughout all of March.

“The pattern through the next two to three weeks appears colder than normal, so we should be able to maintain the snowpack, and signs are good for even enhancing the snowpack over the next couple of weeks,” said Pugh.

Still, the Drought Monitor estimates that roughly one-quarter of California remains in the third-worst category — severe drought. Those areas include portions of eastern San Bernardino and Inyo Counties, as well as multiple counties in the northern part of the state.

About 24% of the state is under moderate drought, and 34% is classified as “abnormally dry.”

While the update reflects measurable drought relief, the report’s authors note that three years of dryness have further depleted some historically low groundwater levels, and that some aquifers may take “months to recover.”

Southern California’s other major water source, the Colorado River, also remains perilously low as the American Southwest suffers one of its driest two-decade periods in more than 1,200 years.

State water officials are expected to gather Friday for their third snow survey of the season and an update on how all the welcome white stuff will affect the state’s water supply.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.


Be the first to know all the big, breaking news in Santa Cruz. Sign up to get Lookout alerts sent straight to your phone here or below.