Drought-busting rainfall from California’s 11th atmospheric river has brought the end of water restrictions for nearly 7 million people, which imposed limits on activities such as outdoor watering as the state grappled with severe shortages.
Wednesday’s decision by the metropolitan water district of southern California brought a measure of relief, even as residents struggled to clean up before the next round of winter arrives in the coming days. The board had imposed the restrictions in parts of Los Angeles, Ventura and San Bernardino counties last year, but a winter of nearly back-to-back storms have refilled reservoirs and built up a monumental snowpack.
The state is still picking up the pieces from a brutal storm, with tens of thousands under evacuation warnings or without power. Flooding also closed several miles of the Pacific Coast Highway, and forty-three of the state’s 58 counties have been under states of emergency due to the storms.
Elsewhere, one man was killed and another remains missing after floodwaters poured into a slot canyon in southern Utah, endangering three groups of hikers who had to be hoisted out via helicopter. The atmospheric river storms have brought rains across the western US, raising the water level in the canyons before additional floodwaters spilled into the slot canyons early this week.
Governor Gavin Newsom surveyed flood damage in an agricultural region on the central coast on Wednesday, noting that California could potentially see a 12th atmospheric river next week. Officials have not yet determined the extent of the winter storms’ damage, both structurally and financially.
“Look back – last few years in this state, it’s been fire to ice with no warm bath in between,” the Democrat said, describing “weather whiplash” in a state that has quickly gone from extreme drought and wildfires to overwhelming snow and rain.
“If anyone has any doubt about Mother Nature and her fury, if anyone has any doubt about what this is all about in terms of what’s happening to the climate and the changes that we are experiencing, come to California,” the governor said.
California’s latest atmospheric river was one of two storm systems that bookended the US this week. Parts of New England and New York were digging out of a nor’easter Wednesday that caused tens of thousands of power outages, numerous school cancellations and whiteout conditions on roads.
For downtown Los Angeles, the National Weather Service said just under 2ft of rain (61cm) has been recorded so far this water year – making this the 14th wettest in more than 140 years of records.
Runoff from a powerful atmospheric river last week burst a levee on the Pajaro River, triggering evacuations as water flooded farmland and agricultural communities. The first phase of repairs on the 400ft (120-meter) levee breach was completed Tuesday afternoon, and crews were working to raise the section to full height, county officials said.
California was deep in drought before an unexpected series of atmospheric rivers barreled into the state from late December through mid-January, causing flooding while building a staggering snowpack in the Sierra Nevada.
Storms powered by arctic air followed in February, creating blizzard conditions that buried mountain communities under so much snow that structures began collapsing.
The water content of the Sierra snowpack is now more than 200% of the 1 April average, when it normally peaks, according to the state department of water resources.
Michael McNutt, a spokesperson for the Las Virgenes municipal water district, said the end of the southern California restrictions is good news but cautioned people to continue to conserve water even in non-drought years.
“We all know that the next drought is just around the corner,” he said on Wednesday. “We’ve got to treat the water coming out of our taps as the liquid gold that it is.”
The district depends almost entirely on state water supplies and had adopted aggressive conservation measures, including putting devices that drastically restrict water flow onto the homes of hundreds of people – including celebrities – who were deemed to be wasting water.