California’s 'Pineapple Express': more where that came from

Drought-stricken California can use the water that came by the bucketful in this week’s storm. But much more is needed for the parched state to fully recover.

Juan Carlo/The Ventura County Star/AP
Firefighters walk through homes covered in mud and rock in Camarillo Springs, Calif., on Friday. Mountainsides stripped bare by a wildfire last year sent a damaging debris flow into the Ventura County community.

The “Pineapple Express” has barreled through California, leaving behind floods, mud slides, power outages, and mandatory evacuations as winds neared 90 miles per hour in some places, whipping the rain sideways.

The deluge had a damaging ally in fire-scarred hillsides no longer able to secure the soil and rocks above threatened neighborhoods in Ventura, Los Angeles, and Orange Counties.

One expert tells the Los Angeles Times the rainfall amounted to 10 trillion gallons of water – enough to power Niagara Falls for 154 days.

Stored properly in reservoirs and mountain snowpacks, that would bring wonderful relief to the drought-parched state. But not when it comes all at once, and not when it’s rain in the mountains instead of snow banked for later.

The state’s major reservoirs should be about half full at this point in the water year, but most are down around 30 percent or less, according to the California Department of Water Resources.

“Most of the precipitation was rain,” Jon Gottschalck of the Climate Prediction Center, part of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, told the New York Times. “It wasn’t really adding to the snowpack, which is really what they need.”

“Certainly this is good,” Mr. Gottschalk said. “But it’s going to be just a minor dent in the drought.”

Christopher Burt, author of “Extreme Weather; A Guide and Record Book,” says, “At this point, the most significant impact of the rainfall has been to drastically improve soil moisture levels.”

“The reservoir situation has also improved, albeit not so markedly,” he writes on his blog at Weather Underground. “The state’s largest reservoir, Shasta Reservoir, has grown by 2 percent in volume and Lake Oroville, the 2nd largest and where most of the state’s drinking and urban use water comes from, saw an increase of 5 percent in volume as a result of the recent rain.”

Meanwhile, authorities are sorting out possible deaths attributable to the storm, which hammered the Pacific Northwest before reaching Southern California. One for sure occurred in southern Oregon where a homeless man camping with his teenage son was crushed by a falling tree.

While drought may improve in some portions of the country this winter, California's record-setting drought will likely persist or intensify in large parts of the state, the National Weather Service predicts.

“Complete drought recovery in California this winter is highly unlikely,” Mike Halpert, acting director of NOAA’s Climate Prediction Center, said in October. “While we’re predicting at least a 2 in 3 chance that winter precipitation will be near or above normal throughout the state, with such widespread, extreme deficits, recovery will be slow.”

For now, calmer weather in the region is likely to be followed by more storms.

“After a day of record rainfall, California will see a break in precipitation this weekend; however, the next Pacific system will begin impacting drought-stricken California by early Monday,” the weather service forecasts.

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