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What Does El Niño Precipitation Mean For California Drought?


The drought in California has been going on for five years now. But if you've turned on the TV recently, or, for that matter, if you live in California, you may have noticed it's raining there - a lot.

The storms this past week are fueled by an El Nino, which is essentially a temperature change in the Pacific that has brought unseasonably warm temperatures to much of the country and a whole lot of precipitation, especially in Southern and central California. The question is - what difference does any of this rain make to California's historic drought?

Alice Walton is a reporter with the LA Times, and she's been writing about all of this. She joins us from our studios at NPR West.

Hi, Alice. Thanks for being with us.

ALICE WALTON: Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: Time for some very basic questions. Where is this rain going? And is all of this precipitation enough to make a dent in the empty reservoirs and aquifers?

WALTON: Well, it will make a dent, but it certainly won't end the drought. As you said, we've had a drought for about five years now, which means we're really at a deficit. Weather forecasters say you'd have to have many times the average amount of rain to make up all that difference, and that's just not realistic.

MARTIN: This weather has been predicted. People have been talking about an El Nino for the past few months. Is this a silly question, but...

WALTON: (Laughter).

MARTIN: ...If you know that a big storms are going to come and your state is in the middle of a really serious and damaging drought, couldn't California do anything to try to capture that water?

WALTON: They've done some stuff over the years. They have tried to improve what they call stormwater capture, which is basically taking all that rain, collecting it and then saving it for future use.

But having just a couple of months heads up is not really enough time to start building whole new reservoirs and dams and really big infrastructure projects.

So a lot of the preparation has been focusing on what people can do - protecting areas that have been impacted by wildfires and therefore might be vulnerable to mudslides or to floods, telling people to have emergency preparedness kits. That's been more where the preparedness has been and not so much on what's going to happen with all the water just because there's not that many options.

MARTIN: So Californians are focusing, not necessarily on all this rain and what good it could do in terms of the drought, but instead they're focusing on all the risks that come with this rain.

WALTON: Well, at least in Southern California because Southern California is not really set up to collect this water. You know, tens of billions of gallons of water are going to rush out to the Pacific Ocean. Some of it will be absorbed by the ground, but most of it will not be. So what people are hoping for is that the rain doesn't just come to kind of the LA area but really that we see it in Northern California. And that's where it could really make a difference for the drought.

MARTIN: Alice Walton from the LA Times talking to us about California's drought and the rainstorms as of late. Thanks so much for talking with us, Alice.

WALTON: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.