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California Is Officially Drought Free For The First Time In A Decade

STEVE GOLDSTEIN: Drier winters and limited precipitation have put many areas of the West — including Arizona and California — into  serious drought conditions. But the latest numbers show that California is officially drought free for the first time in a decade. How did the state get there? And is there hope Arizona is heading in the same positive direction following our recent wetness? With me to talk about that is David Simeral, a climatologist in Reno, Nevada, and author for the U.S. Drought Monitor. David explain this, what does it mean for California to be drought free and how did the state get there after so many dry years?

DAVID SIMERAL: According to the latest  U.S. Drought Monitor weekly assessment, they do have drought. The remaining areas of drought in the state were removed from the map and the remaining areas up in north central California and the Klamath River basin. But that's been in response to a really wet winter in California primarily over the past 75 days it's been well above average in terms of rainfall and snowfall across the mountains of California.

GOLDSTEIN: Is this something that could turn on a dime to some extent if California has dry seasons coming up?

SIMERAL: Moving out of drought, it's not just a matter of the few storms to get you out of drought. It takes a number of storms and some of the metrics that we look at that are really important in the western U.S. are the snowpack levels throughout the wintertime as well as reservoir levels. And California has snowpacks about 155 percent of normal for this year. And their reservoirs, all the major reservoirs across California are currently above average right now. So that means we're going to have a nice reservoir of water that's going to be flowing out of the mountains into the streams that keep replenishing the reservoirs moving into the summer months.

GOLDSTEIN: Is there reason to think based on patterns that are coming up in the next number of months, the next couple of seasons, that California could stay out of drought or could this just be a short lived situation?

SIMERAL: You know, it's just the nature of the climate of the Western U.S. Drought is a natural part of the climate. And you know, the arid and semi-arid western United States so we can expect to you know go back in and out of drought. We're also seeing more climate extremes. Over the past you know 15 to 20 years we've been seeing more extremes in terms of droughts and heat waves as well as events that we're seeing, excessive rainfall and flooding and so forth. So in terms of looking ahead, I think California is going to be in pretty good shape through the summer months. I don't expect to see drought coming back into the state during the summer months but we'll start looking at it again during the fall months when the cool season comes around and we'll be looking at how the snowpack is doing so if we get a dry year in terms of snow and precipitation moving into next winter you could see the possibility of drought redeveloping in those areas.

GOLDSTEIN: Now I know you're a scientist, but is it OK for people to be at least short-term excited about this development?

SIMERAL: Yeah, I think it's a very positive thing for California in terms of water allotments. So with reservoirs being full that'll bode well for the folks in the agricultural sector who will likely be seeing good water allotments and in terms of stream flows across the state will be up the reservoirs will be full for recreational use. So that's a positive thing.

GOLDSTEIN: Do you have information on Arizona's map generally? … How much of Arizona is in drought right now?

SIMERAL: Yeah currently Arizona has got about 16 percent of the state in drought. Start of the calendar year we were looking at about 66 percent of the state was in drought. So we've seen quite a bit of improvement as the last couple of months have been really wet in the state and the cool temperatures throughout the winter have really helped out as well to keep the evaporative demand down. But we've had some good storms and the snowpack is well above normal up in the northern part of the state up, in the San Francisco Peaks. We're looking at about 155 percent than normal, and snowpack is not quite as good, but it's still above normal along the Mogollon Rim in the White Mountains.

GOLDSTEIN: So there's reasons for short term optimism here as well?

SIMERAL: Yeah, conditions have improved significantly. February was the seventh wettest February on record for Arizona. So all this precipitation and snowfall that you're receiving in the mountains have really improved the reservoir conditions across the state. Currently the Salt River system is about 71 percent full and the Verde system is about 98 percent full. So the total reservoir system within Salt River Project is currently about 75 percent full and this is as compared to 61 percent full last year. So we've seen a pretty significant improvement in the reservoir levels in the state.

GOLDSTEIN: And that is David Simeral. He's an author for the U.S. Drought Monitor.

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Steve Goldstein was a host at KJZZ from 1997 to 2022.