In the final three months of 2021, hope arrived in California in the form of rain.
Record-breaking downpours nourished the parched land. The state’s snowpack, a major source of water, reached a staggering 160 percent of its expected level.
If the rains continued through the rest of the winter, experts advised, California’s severe drought could soon start to look very different.
January, typically one of the state’s wettest months, has proved unusually dry. And the odds now favor less-than-average rainfall through the rest of winter, said Daniel Swain, a climate scientist at the University of California, Los Angeles.
“We’re definitely still in the drought in California, and we almost certainly will be in a drought over the rest of the year,” Swain told me. “We may have seen most of our precipitation that we’re going to see this year.”
Despite the recent storms, state officials are pleading with Californians to save water as reservoirs continue to run low. This month, they announced $500 daily penalties for people who water their lawns after rainfall or allow runoff into the streets.
Back in the fall, climate experts were predicting that La Niña conditions would probably bring dry weather to California this winter and exacerbate our drought. But then we got a soggy surprise.
Between October and December, California received more rainfall than it had over the previous 12 months. Atmospheric rivers shattered rainfall records, flooded streets and downed power lines across the state.
Before the storms, 88 percent of California was considered in extreme or exceptional drought, the most severe designations. Now, 1 percent of the state falls into those categories, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor.
That’s a marked improvement, but California still needs a lot more rain to make up for years of water shortfalls. Even after the storms, 99 percent of the state remains in some level of drought.
And if January is any indication, the rest of winter doesn’t seem likely to offer significant relief.
Of course, we don’t know for sure how rainy February and March are going to be. California often experiences unpredictable swings in weather patterns, even more so in recent years.
But three largely dry weeks of January have already begun to diminish some of the benefits from our wet December.
On Dec. 30, the Sierra snowpack was estimated to be about 160 percent of average for that time of year. On Thursday, the snowpack was down to 113 percent of the historical average for that date, according to state data.
There are two factors at play here: California’s snowpack typically grows through January, so the historical average is higher now than it was in December. Plus, the precipitation that had accumulated in the snowpack may be starting to melt because of unseasonably warm temperatures.
Swain, the U.C.L.A. scientist, said he anticipated that the snowpack could drop below the historical average by the end of January.
In other words, the water gains in December were important — on Thursday, the state said water districts would get more supply than originally planned because of the recent deluges — but they didn’t change the big picture.
“The good news is that we’re guaranteed to be better off than last spring,” Swain told me. “The bad news is that we may have seen most of the drought improvement we’re going to see this year.”
Where we’re traveling
Today’s travel tip comes from Carl Serrato, who recommends Sea Ranch:
“Sea Ranch is a stunning 10-mile stretch of bluffs along the Pacific Ocean at the border of Sonoma and Mendocino Counties. It is a combination of serene meadows, tide pools, powerful surf and mesmerizing views. There are plentiful trails along the bluff, and in the hills above.”
Tell us about your favorite places to visit in California. Email your suggestions to CAtoday@nytimes.com. We’ll be sharing more in upcoming editions of the newsletter.
And before you go, some good news
At the Chandler Airport in Fresno, you can often find Samuel Taylor III logging hours inside a flight simulator or going up in a plane above the San Joaquin River.
Soon, he will begin training to become glider-flight certified, which will put him one step closer to commercial pilot certification.
This is a big deal for anyone — there are only 500,000 pilots in the world — but especially for Taylor. He’s 12.
Taylor is part of an academy that provides educational opportunities to youth in the San Joaquin Valley who are from disadvantaged communities and communities of color.
There’s currently a national shortage of pilots, Joseph Oldham, who started the academy in 2018, told The Fresno Bee. Familiarizing these young people with planes could help them one day earn a high-paying job in aviation.
“If they get to fly, they see that it’s not an unattainable goal,” Oldham said. “This could be a pathway for some of these families to change the course of decades of economic distress.”
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