Will the wet start to the rainy season put dent in California’s drought?

Rainy Saturday greets Sacramento's Santa Parade

The weekend rains didn't dim enthusiasm for Sacramento's annual Santa parade around the state Capitol.
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The weekend rains didn't dim enthusiasm for Sacramento's annual Santa parade around the state Capitol.

October was wet, November dry. And December? The soft but steady rains this weekend were enough to push the Sacramento region to 155 percent of normal precipitation for the season.

And there’s more to come. After a break between storms, wet weather is expected to return Tuesday, according to the National Weather Service. The wet system should linger over the region through Thursday, dropping two to three inches of rain in Sacramento and five to eight inches of rain and snow in the Sierra.

Rainy week ahead for Sacramento especially on Thursday

So what does that mean for California’s drought, now entering a sixth year? While Northern California has seen a wet start to winter, the situation is more complicated across the state. Central and Southern California continue to experience unusually dry conditions. And even in the north state, it’s not clear how the rest of the rainy season will shape up.

“There isn’t a strong indicator that could tell us if we’re going to have” high levels of precipitation from now through February, said NWS meteorologist Idamis Del Valle.

Still, the early-season rains are making a dent. A year ago, the U.S. Drought Monitor listed all four counties in the Sacramento region as being in “exceptional drought,” the worst classification. This year, the drought monitor’s weekly report shows conditions in Sacramento and Yolo counties have been upgraded two categories to “severe drought,” while El Dorado County is another step up in “moderate drought,” and parts of Placer are listed as just “abnormally dry” – the least severe category.

Most of the state’s central and southern reaches, meanwhile, are still gripped in “extreme” to “exceptional” drought, according to the map, which is produced by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the University of Nebraska.

“It definitely helps having a good water year, but we’re still in a drought and it took us a few years to get to this point, so it will be a long recovery,” Del Valle said.

North of Sacramento, some places have seen huge jumps over last year’s rainfall totals. In Eureka, the 20.7 inches of rain received since Oct. 1 dwarfs the 9.97 inches that fell during the same period in 2015. At 14.83 inches, Redding has seen nearly 10 more inches of rain since Oct. 1 than during the same period last year.

The drought monitor map shows just five Northern California counties have climbed out of drought status. That includes Shasta and Trinity counties, which are home to two of the major reservoirs critical to providing irrigation and drinking water to the rest of the state. Shasta Lake, the state’s largest reservoir, sits at 108 percent of average for this time of year, according to data kept by the state Department of Water Resources. Trinity Lake remains at 70 percent of average.

Folsom Lake’s storage has risen to 116 percent of average with the recent storms, according to the state data. Water levels at Lake Oroville, meanwhile, are 72 percent of normal.

State water officials are expected to have a better sense of the drought outlook after they conduct the first snowpack measure of the season, later this month or early next. Sierra snowmelt typically constitutes about a third of the state’s water supply, replenishing reservoirs throughout the spring and summer.

This weekend’s storm likely wasn’t good for the snowpack. NWS meteorologist Johnnie Powell said it was a warm storm that washed away at least a foot of snow below 5,000 feet of elevation.

Ellen Garrison: 916-321-1920, @EllenGarrison

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