Water levels in the main reservoirs fell so deep during the California drought that boat docks sat on dry, cracked ground and cars drove into the middle of what should have been Folsom Lake.
Those scenes are no more after a series of powerful storms dumped record amounts of rain and snow across California, replenishing reservoirs and ending – for the most part – the state’s three-year drought.
Now, 12 of California’s 17 major reservoirs are filled above their historical averages for early spring.
This includes Folsom Lake, which controls the flow of water along the American River, as well as Lake Oroville, the second largest reservoir in the state and home to the tallest dam in the country.
It’s a stunning turnaround in water availability in the country’s most populous state. Late last year, nearly all of California was experiencing drought, including extreme and exceptional levels.
Houseboats rest in a canal at Lake Oroville State Recreation Area on August 14, 2021, right, and same location on March 26, 2023, in Butte County
Houseboats float near the Bidwell Bar Bridge in Lake Oroville, in Butte County, California. Months of winter storms have replenished major reservoirs in California after three years of severe drought
The water picture changed dramatically starting in December, when the first of ten ‘atmospheric rivers’ struck, causing widespread flooding, damaging homes and infrastructure, and dumping up to 700 inches of snow into the Sierra Nevada Mountains.
“California went from its three driest years on record to its wettest three weeks on record when we kicked off the wet season in January,” said Carla Nemeth, director of the California Department of Water Resources.
“So, hydrologically speaking, California is no longer in a drought except for very small parts of the state.”
May all the rain and snow, while you’re in a drought, bring new challenges.
Some reservoirs are so full that water is being released to make room for storm runoff and snowmelt that could cause flooding this spring and summer, a new problem for exhausted water managers and emergency responders.
The storms created the largest snowpacks on record in the Sierra Nevada Mountains. The snowpack’s water content is 239 percent of its normal average and nearly three times that of the southern Sierra, according to state data.
Now as the weather warms, water managers are preparing for all that snow to melt, unleashing a torrent of water that is expected to cause flooding in the Sierra foothills and Central Valley.
“We know there will be floods as a result of the melting of the snow,” Nemeth said. “There’s a lot of melting ice that can’t be accommodated in our rivers and canals and keep things between the dams.”
A car crosses the Enterprise Bridge over the banks of Oroville Dry Lake on March 26, 2023, left, and the same location on May 23, 2021, in Butte County.
A trailer stands at a site burned in the 2020 North Complex Fire above Lake Oroville on May 23, 2021, and the same location on March 26, 2023, in Oroville
This time last year, reservoirs in California were less than half their capacity and continued to lose water in the warmer months.
Managers are now flushing water from the downstream of the Oroville Dam, which has been rebuilt after it collapsed during heavy rains in February 2017 and forced the evacuation of more than 180,000 people downstream along the Feather River.
The reservoir is 16 percent higher than its historical average. This is compared to 2021, when water levels dropped so dramatically that hydroelectric dams stopped generating power.
That year, Bidwell Canyon and Lime Saddle Marinas had to pull most recreational boats from Lake Oroville and close their boat rental business because water levels were so low and it was too difficult to get to the marinas, said Jared Rael, who manages the marinas.
In late March, the waters in Lake Oroville rose to 859 feet above sea level, about 230 feet higher than the lowest level in 2021, according to state data.
The public will benefit from the higher water. Everything is easier to access. “They can just jump on the lake and have fun,” Rael said.
Now we have tons of water. We have a high lake with a bunch of snow. We’re going to have a great year.
Browns Ravine Cove area of Folsom Lake on May 22, 2021, left, boats float in the same location on March 26, 2023
In late March, state reservoirs were about 73 percent of capacity, up four percentage points from the 30-year average of 69 percent.
Heavy rains prompted Gov. Gavin Newsom to lift some water restrictions in the state and stop asking people to voluntarily reduce their water use by 15 percent.
Newsom has not declared the drought over because there is still a water shortage along the California-Oregon border and parts of Southern California that rely on the bobbing Colorado River.
Cities and irrigation districts that provide water to farms will receive a significant boost in water supply from the state water project and the Central Valley project, the networks of reservoirs and canals that supply water across California.
Some farmers use rainwater to replenish aquifers that have depleted after years of pumping and droughts have left wells dry.
State officials are warning residents not to allow the current abundance to return to wasted water. In an era of climate change, a very rainy year can be followed by several dry years, bringing the situation back to drought.
“Looking at the weather, we know that the return of dry conditions and the severity of dry conditions that are likely to return means we have to use water more efficiently,” Nemeth said. “We have to embrace conservation as a way of life.”