Sacramento | Reuters — A large winter storm brought much-needed relief to parched California on Friday, boosting its reservoirs and dropping snow on the Sierra Nevada mountains, but the precipitation will not be enough to counter years of drought, officials said.
California is in its third year of a drought that may break all records in the most populous U.S. state, where lawmakers on Friday were expected to send a series of relief proposals to Governor Jerry Brown for his signature. President Barack Obama has also pledged millions of dollars in aid.
“Despite these recent storms, it would still have to rain every other day until around May to reach average precipitation totals, and even then we would still be in a drought due to the last two dry years,” said Richard Stapler, spokesman for the California Natural Resources Agency.
Brown declared a drought emergency last month and has called on state officials to prepare for water shortages and develop solutions for potentially long-term dry weather.
Officials have said that California farmers facing drastic cutbacks in irrigation water are expected to idle half a million acres of cropland this year in a record production loss that could cause billions of dollars in economic damage.
The National Weather Service predicted moderate to heavy rain in southern and central California on Friday, slowing by Saturday afternoon. The Service said Oxnard, a coastal city just north of Los Angeles, had the highest precipitation in all of the United States on Friday at five centimetres by 2:45 p.m.
Officials warned residents about possible mudslides in areas where the summer’s wildfires left hillsides bare and unprotected by tree roots and bushes.
While the wet weather was welcome, rain and high winds caused road closures and power outages in southern California and brought enough snow that tire chains were required for driving on mountain roads near the Nevada border.
In Los Angeles, 14,000 customers were without power by mid-morning. People were soaked as high winds turned umbrellas inside out and drove the rain nearly sideways as they waited for buses and light rail trains.
Near Malibu, crews worked to clear debris from the Pacific Coast Highway north of the affluent seaside city after rockslides prompted officials to close a 16-km stretch of the scenic road.
Patrick Chandler, a spokesman for the California Department of Transportation, said a large wildfire in the area last year had caused the hillsides to be less stable.
“A lot of times, when you have rain in this area, especially with the drought, you’re going to have a lot of loose rocks coming down,” Chandler said.
Later Friday, the agency closed the Angeles Crest Highway in the San Gabriel Mountains northeast of Los Angeles after another rockslide made the road impassable.
By noon, there had been 158 vehicle crashes in the Los Angeles area, 112 more than the previous Friday, according to the California Highway Patrol.
Firefighters lowered themselves on ropes to pull a man out of the Los Angeles River, a treacherous culvert with concrete sides that rushes quickly to the sea when it rains. The man was taken to a nearby hospital, but his condition had not been released by mid-afternoon on Friday.
The Accu Weather service reported that more than an inch of rain had fallen on Southern California since the storm moved in on Thursday night, and that two neighbourhoods in the foothills of the San Gabriel mountains had been evacuated as a precaution in case the wet weather prompted mudslides.
Air traffic was also affected at Los Angeles International Airport, where 19 incoming and outgoing flights were canceled on Friday morning, officials said.
In northern California, about 13,000 customers lost power in the San Francisco Bay Area and the wine-making Sonoma County, said Jason King, a spokesman for the Pacific Gas & Electric utility company.
Although many of those households and businesses had their power restored by early afternoon, the company expected additional outages to occur on Friday night as the rainy and windy weather continued, King said.
— Sharon Bernstein is a Reuters correspondent based in Sacramento.