Powerful storm brought much-needed rain to California

This photo provided by the Santa Barbara County Fire Department shows an excavator clearing boulders and debris from San Ysidro Basin in Montecito, Calif., Thursday, March 22, 2018 following heavy rains. Scars from the deadly Jan. 9 debris flow are still visible surrounding the basin and creek. (Mike Eliason/Santa Barbara County Fire Department via AP)
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Associated Press

LOS ANGELES (AP) — The storm that drenched California this week brought much-needed rain to the state, which has been slipping back into drought conditions due to a dry winter that only turned wet and snowy this month. Preliminary storm data Friday showed some stunning totals for the three-day storm, including more than 10 inches (25 centimeters) of rain at some locations in the Sierra Nevada and on the central coast, and 31 inches (79 centimeters) of snow at Tuolumne Meadows in the Sierra.

In coastal Santa Barbara and Ventura counties northwest of Los Angeles, where drought conditions have been characterized as severe to extreme, many locations reported well over 5 inches (13 centimeters) of rain from the storm. Any addition to the Sierra snowpack is welcome: Runoff from the 400-mile-long (644-kilometer-long) range supplies about a third of the water used by Californians each year, but the most recent measurement found its water content to be less than 40 percent of normal.

For counties like Santa Barbara, the rain will help fill reservoirs that are vital to local water supplies even though the storm forced thousands to evacuate their homes due to the threat of destructive debris flows which fortunately did not materialize. A little over a year ago, years of drought had reduced a major reservoir there to less than 10 percent of capacity before the historic rains of 2017. In the San Joaquin Valley — part of the Central Valley agricultural heartland of California — the storm brought pluses and minuses.

“It’s making it messy,” said Joe Del Bosque, owner of Del Bosque Farms on the west side of the San Joaquin, where the rain interrupted his asparagus harvest for two days and when it resumed workers had to walk the crop out of the fields because tractors couldn’t be used.
In addition to lost wages for workers, the storm will delay planting of his melons and other farmers’ tomatoes, which in turn will delay those harvests, he said.

On the positive side, the moisture the storm put into the ground will help his almond and cherry trees, which have finished blooming and are leafing out. It will also help develop cover crops that are plowed into the ground where organic melons are grown.Runoff will also help recharge groundwater on the east side of the San Joaquin Valley that has been depleted through pumping during years of drought, Del Bosque said.

“I think the benefits of the storm outweigh the disadvantages of it … because we needed this rain so badly,” he said. As the storm headed east Thursday, authorities continued to clean up rockslides and mud from roads and cut up toppled trees. In Tuolumne County near Yosemite National Park, state experts were inspecting a small dam that had threatened to fail during the rains. Operators were draining the reservoir behind the weakened 60-foot (18-meter) high dam, said spokesman Chris Orrock.

Authorities evacuated about three dozen people Thursday when water neared the top of the dam. Officials also spotted water seeping through the front of the earthen dam but the danger of immediate failure passed by late that day. The 88-year-old dam is part of the Hetch Hetchy water system that supplies water to 2.7 million people in the San Francisco Bay Area. Forecasters said Southern California would see mostly benign weather in coming days, but northern and eastern California could expect heavy snow in the mountains from Friday afternoon through Sunday as two new systems moved through.