California Still in Drought?  Yes, No and Maybe — Part 1

News Analysis by Kip Hansen — 26 January 2023

There are claims that despite being flooded, washed away, landslided and buried in snow California is really still in drought. 

The New York Times article Despite Rain Storms, California Is Still in Drought, written by three journalists Elena ShaoMira Rojanasakul and Nadja Popovich, states “the sudden deluge has not made up for years of ongoing drought.”

Cliff Mass, professor of Atmospheric Sciences at the University of Washington, and hosts the Cliff Mass Weather Blog, has a different opinion:  The California Drought is Over. Definitively.

The New York Times journalists are generally required to write to the newspaper’s Climate Hysteria Narrative, in which all things weather and climate must be portrayed as having negative impacts.  So, their stories about California’s recent weeks of stormy rainy weather were all “disaster disaster” now they must insist that despite all that rain California still remains in drought.

Dr. Cliff Mass carefully debunks this claim in his piece linked above, which was re-posted here at WUWT.

But let’s try to be a little more scientifically disinterested.

Is it possible that both claim and counter-claim are true?  Is that possible?  Yes, very much so.

How can that be true?

1)  Definitional Differences.   According to (the website of the National Integrated Drought Information System):

“Drought is generally defined as “a deficiency of precipitation over an extended period of time (usually a season or more), resulting in a water shortage.”

“As the different definitions at right illustrate, though, drought can be difficult to define—so difficult, in fact, that in the early 1980s researchers found more than 150 published definitions of drought, reflecting differences in regions, needs, and approaches.”

Those definitions given by include:

Merriam-Webster Dictionary: “A period of dryness especially when prolonged.”

American Meteorological Society: “A period of abnormally dry weather sufficiently long enough to cause a serious hydrological imbalance.”

NOAA’s National Weather Service: “A deficiency of moisture that results in adverse impacts on people, animals, or vegetation over a sizeable area.”

So, the factors that are involved in ”drought” include dryness, time period, impacts,  timing, geographical area and (unmentioned) climate type.

Dryness:  Of what?  soil?  Lack of rain or snow?  Reservoir levels, lake levels, river flow, water tables?  Humidity? (and what might a ‘hydrological imbalance’ be?)   Most drought declarations are based on rainfall amounts as “percentages below normal” (for the month, year-to-date, etc).

Time Period: “If a weather pattern that results in a precipitation deficit lasts for a few weeks or months, it is considered short-term drought. If the pattern and precipitation deficits last for more than six months, it is typically considered long-term drought. “ [ source –  ]

But we know that droughts can also span years, decades, centuries and millennia (Northern Africa).

Impact:  There are many different types of drought, classified by their type:

  • Meteorological Drought is based on the degree of dryness or rainfall deficit and the length of the dry period.
  • Hydrological Drought is based on the impact of rainfall deficits on the water supply such as stream flow, reservoir and lake levels, and ground water table decline.
  • Agricultural Drought refers to the impacts on agriculture by factors such as rainfall deficits, soil water deficits, reduced ground water, or reservoir levels needed for irrigation.
  • Socioeconomic Drought considers the impact of drought conditions (meteorological, agricultural, or hydrological drought) on supply and demand of some economic goods such as fruits, vegetables, grains and meat. Socioeconomic drought occurs when the demand for an economic good exceeds supply as a result of a weather-related deficit in water supply.

Timing:  This applies particularly to short-term agricultural drought – or lack thereof.   Gentle rains in springtime, allowing planting and germination of crops (at more-or-less the right time) are good, but heavy springtime rains can prevent planting until late in the season, and when considering drought, not enough rain at planting time or short-term drought prevents germination or dries up the emerging shoots. 

When drought – lack of rain – hits as crops are maturing, it can result in near total crop failure.  Too much rain at that time can ruin crops.

Geographical Area:  10 inches of rain per year in Scotsdale, Arizona (a desert city) is normal, but would be severe drought in Seattle, Washington, where the average is 38 inches per year. The county I live in is rather small, yet tells me, after a wet winter so far, that the southern part of he county is “in drought”.

Our media and press too often talks of political units as if they were geographical units – using State and County and National boundaries as if they determined weather, climate and other natural phenomena. 

In our case today, California is not a Climate Zone, does not have a single weather type or expectation, nor can California be simplified into Northern and Southern California.

Climate Type:  Most people are aware that there are differing climates, by area.  Rain forests, deserts, Mediterranean climates (and diets, it seems).  Steppes and high mountains and polar ice caps. In reality, there are far more and varied types of climates.  The most used classification today is the Köppen–Geiger climate classification system, in which climates are divided into five main climate groups, with each group being divided based on seasonal precipitation and temperature patterns.

A quick glance at the map allows us to identify the areas of major deserts in bright red and the band of tundra in the northern hemisphere.  The blues as tropical forests in South America, Africa and island nations lying between Southeast Asia and Australia. (Note: The above chart leaves out “H Highland/Timberline” such as found in the High Sierras of California).

And California?

Looking at the map and the list of the 11 climate types found in California gives us most of what we need to know:  Almost all descriptions (see larger here) include the words “dry”, “arid”, “Mediterranean” or “hot”.  The larger southeastern deserts, the Mojave and the Colorado, are obvious, but no so obvious are the semi-arid/steppe environments of the southern Central Valley and much of the Southern California coastal area starting at the Los Angeles basin and continuing south to the border with Mexico.  North of Los Angeles, starting at Santa Barbara (where I attended university) all the way to the northern border with Oregon, the immediate coast (west of the coastal mountains) is that wonderful mild and somewhat mysterious climate type called “Mediterranean/summer fog”  (for which Monterey, Santa Cruz and Big Sur and the Coastal Redwood forests are so famous).

There is no one climate that is California.

When it is said that California is still/is not still in drought, what do they mean?

That’s the problem.  One has to be very careful when speaking of drought, and the NY Times’ crew certainly wasn’t.   Cliff Mass covered a lot of territory, and gave us graphs and carts of differing drought indicators.

But here is what the still says as of Tuesday, 24 January 2023 (latest data is for week ending 17 January 2023):

Cliff Mass used the right-hand-most image above in his refutation (linked above).  This next image is what appeared in the NY Times:

which is a one-month view on the left and a three-year on the right.

On the other hand, the California SPIE (The Standardised Precipitation-Evapotranspiration Index) on a 12-month basis, downloaded on 21 Jan 23, looks like this:

Which shows still quite dry in the southeast-most corner of the Colorado desert.

What can we make of all this?

Some of these images have some commonalities.  But, in the end, they are more different than they are alike.

Why?  I’ll cover that in Part 2.

# # # # #

Author’s Comment:

I grew up in Los Angeles in the 1950s and early 1960s.  In that 20-year period we had years-long droughts, requiring water conservation rules; we had rainy years, we had atmospheric rivers (called Pineapple Express in those days, coming from Hawaii), we had great floods — filling Los Angeles’ extensive flood control channels (and my local park — intentionally built as a flood control device).

I spend summers camping and hiking the great dry brush covered hills and mountains, and exploring nearly endless deserts by day and by night.

California is a “mostly dry” place – beautiful where not covered with concrete and the rabbit warrens of far too many people.

Stay tuned for Part 2

Thanks for reading.

# # # # #


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Loren Wilson
January 26, 2023 6:19 pm

If your drought lasts a millennium, it’s getting to be climate, not weather.

January 26, 2023 6:34 pm

So, their stories about California’s recent weeks of stormy rainy weather were all “disaster disaster” now they must insist that despite all that rain California still remains in drought.

There’s a limit to how much credence to place in the New York Times. Its primary mission nowadays is to manipulate its readers into the preferred state of mind of the day – to give them ‘what they should know’, as their camp-follower Seattle Times likes to say – and the most important item in that mix is to ensure that the Progressives shall rule. So in short, if you have an interest in the lives of Californians with respect to rainfall, reading the sob-sister NYT version should be held off, to do after reading the funnies. Definitely read Cliff Mass – he’s still into conveying the truth, rather than political Gospel – and he has the knowledge to pull it off.

January 26, 2023 7:01 pm

Snowpack is 240% of average and reservoirs are 94% of average. Near future looks fine.

Reply to  mleskovarsocalrrcom
January 26, 2023 8:58 pm

Our reservoirs will all be dumped to 40% of normal by October

Reply to  kenji
January 27, 2023 6:54 am

There is no such thing as “normal” precipitation, or “normal weather” – normal is whatever happens. There are such measures of “40% of full capacity” by some date certain .. and that is always normal, and may be above or below average for that date per the historical data, such as it is.

With reservoirs, they are never operated at full capacity all year around, because if so that would defeat the very purpose of runoff storage. Fill the reservoirs when runoff is high and demand is low … and empty the reservoirs when runoff is low and demand is high.

Ron Long
Reply to  mleskovarsocalrrcom
January 27, 2023 2:21 am

While I applaud your optimistic outlook, mleskovarsocalrrcom, you aren’t utilizing the “Standardized Precipitation and Evapotranspiration Index” properly. This index is generated by inputting current weather data, like a month of heavy rain in California, with weather predictions, into a Neural Network (aka Artificial Intelligence) and predicting the future. The catch is that the weather prediction is biased by climate change predicting a burning hell on earth, so the water all evaporates and the plunge back into drought is realized. Don’t goof on me now, and try to substitute regular intelligence for Artificial Intelligence. Just saying.

January 26, 2023 7:28 pm

Very good.

January 26, 2023 7:44 pm

Let’s keep it simple. A drought is a deficiency of moisture that results in adverse impacts on people. A flood is a surplus of moisture that results in adverse impacts on people. Some places get both on most days of the year. The moisture level and the timescale are basically irrelevant to the media, because the only thing that really counts is adverse impact on people.
If it bleeds it leads. The media can always generate blood somewhere.

Reply to  Kip Hansen
January 28, 2023 1:00 pm

You may have a point. I only check the California Snow Water Content page almost daily from mid-December to May. That’s when it snows. I don’t bother when it’s not snowing. Probably disappointing to someone.

Hoyt Clagwell
Reply to  Mike Jonas
January 27, 2023 9:09 am

To paraphrase Garrison Keillor, “California, where all of the weather is above average.”

Stuart Baeriswyl
January 26, 2023 8:01 pm

Thanks Kip for this Part I. of your blog\article. It’s been laziness mostly on my part, but now I personally must explore this topic myself as a Californian residing in Santa Cruz County.

It has been bothering me for a while how our news outlets & government agencies have been sprinkling and seasoning seemingly -every-weather & climate news story with at least ‘light to moderate’ alarmism.

So Kip, I will look forward to your Part II. and I also will dig in and do a little personal research for myself and get up to speed on where we actually stand with respect to what is “drought” and what is “normal” precipitation and reserves.

Curious George
Reply to  Stuart Baeriswyl
January 27, 2023 7:56 am

Do we know what statistical pattern rain and floods follow? Surely not Gaussian. Hurst exponent comes to mind for river Nile, but does it apply to California as well?

David Solan
January 26, 2023 8:27 pm

  I respectfully disagree with Mr. Hansen. I know a little bit about the English
language as I’ve been using it quite a while and the word “drought”, obviously
specifying a large area with chronic low levels of precipitation occurring over a long
period of time, has always implied three additional components, as far as I have
gleaned in my lifetime: impact, impact, and impact. In other words, if it doesn’t
upset the applecart too much, it ain’t no drought, no matter what the precipitation.

  Thus, Antarctica is NOT in a 20 million-year “drought”. It has little
precipitation, but it doesn’t need much precipitation to maintain its status quo with
regard to the scarce animal life (and plant life) living on its surface. And Los
Angeles, the hometown of Mr. Hansen, was probably NEVER in “drought” conditions before
it was “covered with concrete and the rabbit warrens of far too many people”, as Mr.
Hansen bemoans. When it has less rain, it’s called “drought” now because of the
impact low water levels have on the many people that are living there now.

 The word has always been DEFINED in terms of what the dry weather is doing to all
the people (sometimes flora and fauna) living in the affected area it refers to.
Without that crucial detail, a drought is not a drought.

  As far as the specific case of California is concerned, after the FEET of
precipitation that has dropped on it over the last 2 months, the validity of the
characterization of it still being in a “drought” lies in doubt. I guess this will be
rehashed many times in the next few months before even objective observers can call
the drought ended — and that might be only for a short time before others scream that
word all over again. Like the show, the hysteria must go on.

David Solan

January 26, 2023 8:55 pm

“As the different definitions at right illustrate, though, drought can be difficult to define—so difficult, in fact, that in the early 1980s researchers found more than 150 published definitions of drought, reflecting differences in regions, needs, and approaches.”

And there you have it. There is NO scientific definition of drought. Just sociological definitions. Hence, the term, and the maps … and most importantly! … time frames can be manipulated to manufacture “drought”. For example … the only time frame that means ANYTHING for CA drought … is the RAINY SEASON each year. I have watched and listened to constant chatter with each storm this rainy season … that claim this rain won’t end the drought. And the next rain doesn’t end the drought. And the next rain doesn’t. And again, and again and again. Well … right up until the full rainy season ends and we are at 250% of “normal”. CA isn’t like many other region in America where it rains all year. It RARELY, if ever rains from May thru October anywhere in CA except in the extreme northwest corner of the State. Nothing. Nada. So all that matters is the FULL rainy season each year.

And then … CA NEVER has a “normal” rainfall/snowfall year. Ever. Every year is different. Every pattern of years is different. So how can a dry year = a drought when it is followed by a deluge year? Or two years of sub-“normal” rainfall years followed by two years of deluge.

Just watch the Drought Monitor … when this rainy season ends in April … and we’re at 220% of normal … the very next month … the Drought Monitor will have CA in 80% EXTREME drought … because it hasn’t rained for a month. Of course, it rarely does in that time frame … but the drought monitor will use some “sociological” metrics to determine CA was in EXTREME drought such as “a large percentage of trees exhibiting stress”. Nevermind bark beetles … because they are unleashed by “drought” … hence beetle damage = drought. And why? Because drought = global warming = the great reset.

David Dibbell
Reply to  kenji
January 27, 2023 3:51 am

“Because drought = global warming = the great reset.”

Exactly. So as long as there are gasoline-powered cars, natural gas-fueled stoves, fossil fuel sources of reliable electricity, and plastics made from petroleum, there will be drought. And it will persist no matter what happens with heavy rain, floods, crop yields, or whatever else might show us that a period of drought has obviously ended. So the ridiculous claims that “climate action” in the form of wind + solar + battery storage + EV’s must be promoted – because of “drought” – will continue until enough folks wake up and push back.

Dennis Gerald Sandberg
January 26, 2023 10:39 pm

I’ve been in California for 12 years. Two weeks ago I had the biggest puddle ever in my backyard and I wondered, is this amount of rainfall “unprecedented”? So I did some checking.
Here’s some data from Central Coast Paso Robles, CA dating back to 1942/43 (average rainfall 14 inches)
1968/69 total rainfall: 31.25 inches including 13.93 inches in January and 9.12 inches in February.
1997/98 total rainfall: 27.09 including 9.06 inches in February.
Going back to 1968/69 with two back to back months totally more than 23 inches happened, if it happens again in 2022/23 it won’t be “unprecedented”, and even if it’s a few percentage greater, it’s not “proof of catastrophic anthropogenic existential threatening climate change”.
In the past week, we’ve had a few sprinkles of rain and the forecast for the rest of the month is partly cloudy to sunny, with no rain forecast. Rain total for January, 2023: 10.34 inches. What does it look like? Little less than 1968/69, little more than 1997/98. Yawn.

January 26, 2023 11:41 pm

This is the first article I read today and immediately made my daily list of the best climate science and energy articles I read today. Hansen is a gold star author with consistent high quality. I love an article title that accurately summarizes the article. That Hansen grew up in the LA area makes his knowledge of climate history there much better than the average writer, No one is going to BS Hansen with CA climate alarmism.

I thank the 1,144 people who visited my brand new climate science and energy blog in the first two days. My lists of good articles I read every day will always include some articles from this website, such as this one. Who knew that droughts could be so interesting?

Honest Climate Science and Energy

January 26, 2023 11:48 pm

Living in Michigan since 1977, I noticed about once a decade there is scaremongering about the Great Lakes water level being “too low” or “too high”. No one with sense listens to the scaremongering, but the newspapers always make a big deal about water level peaks and troughs. Other residents tell me this has been going on long before I arrived here in 1977. Anything unusual is spun as a disaster, and extrapolated up the wazoo, by the mainstream media. “Up the wazoo” is a scientific term.

Peta of Newark
January 27, 2023 12:01 am

<looks at Koppen Map>
<comes over a bit sad>

The Koppen Map is, yes a map of Climate but, it is really a map of what causes Climate

Until that Cause & Effect Error is sorted out, we are on a fast track to total oblivion.
wrap up warm

January 27, 2023 1:14 am

Thanks Kip. Very informative. Unfortunately it is material that only those of us that strive to understand will consume. I will email a link to your article to family and friends and would bet only about 1/2 of them will take the time to read it. Some will be true believers in CAGW and others will be those that believe it is BS. And a couple are fence sitters. The proportion of those that will not read it will be about equally divided between the three categories I would bet.

Tim Gorman
January 27, 2023 4:06 am

Nice article Kip. Always enjoy reading your analyses.

One item to address: underground aquifers. I suspect CA is experiencing the same thing as the central US (e.g. KS, NE, etc) which is depletion of underground acquifers due to ever expanding irrigation. It’s not directly climate caused or causation but its very important since it is related to the ability of the climate to refill the acquifers.

January 27, 2023 4:26 am

With hundreds of differing definitions of “drought” it is clear that the word means whatever it is that the writer or speaker wants it to mean .. which renders the term meaningless. If everything is a drought (to someone somewhere) then nothing is a drought.

Taking a more limited view of the meaning of drought, it is silly to talk of multi-year “deficits” in moisture. The plants and animals that were dependent upon the weather for seasonal growth in prior years do not carry forward a deficit. Reservoirs – which are entirely man made artificial systems to store runoff – may have multi year deficits, but not the environment itself.

The fact that last year had fewer (or more) inches of precipitation than a statistical average has zero effect on what is going on right now with plants and animals. Water the forest or the grasslands or the crops sufficiently to have healthy growth now, and the plants don’t care what happened one or more years or growing seasons prior. The same thing applies to both droughts and excesses of precip as compared to a statistically average year or season.

Tim Gorman
Reply to  Duane
January 27, 2023 8:45 am

Water the forest or the grasslands or the crops sufficiently to have healthy growth now, and the plants don’t care what happened one or more years or growing seasons prior. “

Not sure I totally agree with this. Native prairie grass have developed root systems that sometimes go eight feet or more down into the soil. This has evolved over time based on the semi-arid nature of the prairie in order to be able to access moisture during periods of low rain. It’s also why you don’t find many trees out on the prairie, they tend to cluster around streams or springs.

Reply to  Tim Gorman
January 27, 2023 11:23 am

Whatever plant communities exist now are the result of thousands of years of evolutionary development and adaptation to climate, including droughts and wet spells. The more deep rooted a plant the LESS it is affected by short term variations in near surface soil moisture concentrations.

D Boss
January 27, 2023 6:01 am

For a practical first hand look at the California water condition, see the following video: (California Flood Drought UPDATE! 21 Jan 2023)
Juan Browne is a commercial airline pilot, who lives in Northern California and regularly updates his viewers on both the fire status and water status, often by doing flyovers in one of his small bush planes.

Thus you can see for your own eyes what the condition is, not some semanticly challenged “expert” telling you what they believe it is.

Rud Istvan
January 27, 2023 8:15 am

Kip, very nice post. I look forward to part 2.

Gary Pearse
January 27, 2023 9:00 am

“So, the factors that are involved in ”drought” include dryness, time period, impacts, timing, geographical area…”

Missed is the ‘activist caused drought.’ They have resisted measures for water storage needed to keep a dry place like California supplied. Had they allowed adequate storage, these present rains would have wetted an already better condition.

Also, since the Central Valley deep aquifer (sandstone) rises from the depths of the basin to the surface and near-surface all along the eastern margin of the valley, artificial recharge engineering is a lifesaver begging to be done to fill up this storage. It is immense. The aquifer has been drawn down to the tune of 2km³ of water a year for 50yrs!! Also, much shallower aquifers above the main one are exploited for household water in rapidly growing communities. Present rains are probably filling these ones, but they should be evaluated for artificial recharge too.

Activist greens oppose anything that would serve humankind, not just in Africa, Latin America and poor countries in Asia. Why do we accept this?

January 27, 2023 11:08 am

As Kip has stated it all comes down to how you define “drought”. As a California resident the topic is of interest to me but the semantics are not. What matters:

* The soil is really, really wet. Good.
* The state of the reservoirs is hugely improved. Excellent.
* The snow pack is hugely improved but it’s too early to tell what that will mean for the rest of the year. Unknown.
* The state of the ground water is still of serious concern. Bad.
* California will continue to have problems with the water supply because we have “drought” every summer, we failed to develop/maintain our water supply infrastructure and we allocate the available water inappropriately. Bad.

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