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California Is Headed for Another Wet Winter

For the first time in four years, drought is nowhere to be found.

California rain.
Heatmap Illustration/Getty Images

The 2020s got off to a parched, smoky start in the West. But after three years of unrelenting drought, 2023 brought the region some relief.

Thanks to a very snowy winter followed by a very rainy spring, the worst of the Western drought receded rapidly in the early months of this year, data from the U.S. Drought Monitor shows. The extent bottomed out in the early summer, when only one-sixth of the West was experiencing any level of drought at all. It’s crept upward since then to about 45% of the region, but still — that’s the lowest drought level the contiguous Western states have seen at this time of year since 2019.

Most remarkable, in some ways, has been California’s transformation. After years with far too little precipitation, in 2023 California often received far too much. A spate of atmospheric rivers early in the year dumped inches of rain on its lower elevations and feet of snow in its mountains. In April, Hurricane Hilary smashed rainfall records across the southern part of the state.

Two years ago this week, 100% of California was drought-stricken; early this fall, the last patches disappeared (though a small but declining percentage of the state is still considered “abnormally dry”). This is the first time drought has been absent from California since 2019. The most recent time before that was 2011. Before that, it was 2006.

Meanwhile, the uptick in Western drought since summer has been most severe in Arizona and New Mexico, where the vast majority of places are drier than usual and conditions in some areas are becoming more severe. Temperatures in Phoenix rose above 110 degrees Fahrenheit on a record 55 different days between June and September, including an historic 31-day streak that baked the city for almost all of July, the Arizona Republic reported. While the wet winter replenished some of the Colorado River’s dwindling water supply, the temporary boost wasn’t enough to avert imminent cutbacks among the Southwestern states that depend on it.

This precipitation rebound won’t last, of course. The above-average mountain snowpack that piled up from heavy winter snows and kept streams flowing through the spring and into the summer is long gone now. And the decline this year in infernos terrorizing the West is almost certainly a blip in the trend toward ever more devastating fire years, The Washington Post reported last week. If historic patterns hold true, there might not be another fire season this quiet for decades.

“We have just had a respite,” Tonya Graham, the mayor of Ashland, Ore., told the Post. “We have had a little bit of breathing space in this trajectory that is taking us toward higher wildfire and smoke risk and more extreme temperatures.”

But that rest doesn’t look to be over for everyone just yet. Snowpack is already starting to accumulate again. And the National Weather Service forecasts that at least in California and neighboring states, there’s a good chance precipitation will stay higher than normal through the winter.

Nicole Pollack profile image

Nicole Pollack

Nicole Pollack is a freelance environmental journalist who writes about energy, agriculture, and climate change. She is based in Northeast Ohio.

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