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California storms offer some relief to the state's drought-stricken areas

A partially submerged home and vehicles are seen during a winter storm in Petaluma, California, January 8, 2017.
Stephen Lam | Reuters
A partially submerged home and vehicles are seen during a winter storm in Petaluma, California, January 8, 2017.

The huge winter storms in California are expected to result in an improvement in the most severe drought conditions in both the northern and southern portions of the state.

This weekend's storm broke some records set in the late 1970s, and was being compared with a Godzilla-like storm that impacted the state a decade ago.

"They are just getting hammered right now," said David Miskus, a senior meteorologist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and one of the authors of the weekly U.S. Drought Monitor. "It's been a good year so far and is long overdue."

Miskus said there's a good chance we might see major improvements out in the Western drought situation due to the recent precipitation totals.

As of last Thursday, about 68 percent of the state was still in drought, and about 38 percent was in the worst category — "extreme" or "exceptional" drought conditions. Besides Central California, the Southern California region including Los Angeles and San Diego are still technically in elevated drought conditions, according to the last Drought Monitor.

This weekend's storm brought precipitation of 2 to 5 inches in some drought-stricken areas of the Central Valley and around 3 to 9 inches in the Shasta Mountains, according to the National Weather Service. Along the foothills and slopes of the Sierra Nevada mountain range, meanwhile, around 4 to 10 inches of precipitation was recorded and some areas were at up to 13 inches.

There were reports of flooding of streets, small streams, creeks and even rivers as well as rock slides throughout the state. Also, several major reservoirs in the state were releasing water for flood control purposes.

Chris Hintz, a forecaster with the National Weather Service in Sacramento, said this is the biggest storm the region has seen in at least a decade. "We're comparing it to the storms we had in December 2005," he said.

Back in 2005, there were storms before Christmas that continued into January and produced rainfall that resulted in severe flooding in portions of Northern California and damages back then totaling around $300 million.

Similar to 2005, flooding from the latest storms has included areas along the Russian River in Northern California. In Sonoma and Mendocino counties, flood levels along the river crested early Monday and were expected to remain high possibly through the middle of the week.

In the Bay area, there also was flooding reported over the weekend in portions of Santa Clara County. Several people were reported rescued in San Jose on Sunday when their vehicle became trapped by the rising waters.

Portions of Monterey County along the Central Coast also experienced flooding. The Big Sur River inundated a camping area and closed several parks in the area.

Indeed, most of the precipitation from the weekend storm was isolated in Northern and Central California since the system weakened when it did shift south.

As for snow, there were reports from the Sierra Avalanche Center of avalanches taking place over the weekend and continued dangers. Snow levels went up to 8,000 feet on early Saturday and by Sunday there was snow reported to be falling at elevations of around 5,000 feet.

Hintz said the next storm was forecast to strike Tuesday with upwards of 7 feet of snow forecast in parts of the higher Sierra Nevada mountain range. That's good news for the state's snowpack, which supplies about 30 percent of the state's water needs as it melts in the spring and sustains the state through the hot and dry summer months.

The state conducted a snowpack survey last week, which showed frozen water supply in the Sierras at just 53 percent of the early-January average.

This weekend storms were part of what's called an atmospheric river, or what's sometimes known as a "pineapple express" storm because it originates off the Hawaiian Islands and draws moisture from the tropics. Tuesday's storm — also a tropical storm — is forecast to produce only about half of the precipitation totals of this weekend's storm, according to Hintz.

The Central Valley, where the bulk of agriculture production takes place in California, has been one region hard hit by the six-year drought. But this weekend's rainfall in the Central Valley brought welcome relief.

"We are in better shape than prior years," said Central Valley farmer Dan Errotabere, who grows, nuts, grapes, garlic and other crops in Fresno County. Still, he said the concern is the area will get a lot of rain now and then "it shuts off and doesn't rain again."

The rain has been helpful to farmers because it has meant there's more water in storage available for future use. The storm also has been a boost to local cities in the Central Valley such as Fresno.

As of Monday, Fresno had more than 170 percent of the historic average rainfall for this time of year. The National Weather Service also reported that Fresno set a 24-hour record for rainfall Sunday that beat the previous record set that date in 1979.

Elsewhere, San Francisco International Airport is at about 147 percent of its normal rainfall for this time of year. Rainfall in downtown Sacramento over the last 24 hours set a record dating back to 2001, and the city is now at about 176 percent of the historic average rainfall for this time of year.

Downtown LA received less than an inch of rain from the storms this weekend and Monday, although parts of Santa Barbara County received up to 3 inches of rainfall. After the storm, LA stood at about 142 percent of normal rainfall for this time of year.