February 2, 2023

Plans to Visit California? What to Know About the Severe Winter Storms

Another deluge of rain and snow swept across California on Tuesday, and the National Weather Service reports that the next atmospheric river—a weather system that typically starts in tropical regions and brings ample precipitation and winds—is already gearing up to hit Northern California starting on Wednesday.

Rainfall totals over the past several weeks throughout California have been 400 to 600 percent above average, the National Weather Service reported. “This has resulted in nearly saturated soils and increasingly high river levels. Today’s heavy rain will further exacerbate ongoing flooding while prolonging the risk of flash flooding and mudslides especially across recent burn scar regions,” the weather agency warned in its January 10 update.

The storms threatened coastal and riverside towns and left more than 200,000 homes and businesses without power early Tuesday, according to poweroutage.us, which tracks utility reports.

President Joe Biden declared a state of emergency in California late Sunday and ordered that federal assistance be provided to support the state’s response efforts. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has been authorized to help coordinate disaster relief efforts.

The above-average rainfall and snow has resulted in widespread flood warnings, road closures, and even some evacuations. Here is a snapshot of some of the challenges currently facing different regions of California.

Southern California

Forecasters have warned that southern California could see wind gusts of up to 60 mph during the peak of the storm on Tuesday, and that some areas, including Los Angeles and Ventura counties, could receive up to a half-inch of rain per hour. The community of La Conchita in Ventura County, just north of L.A., was advised to evacuate, and the Ventura River reached its highest level on record at more than 25 feet on Monday. The water level dropped to minor flood stage levels after the rain subsided.

Santa Barbara County

Authorities in Santa Barbara County on Tuesday issued a mandatory evacuation order for the coastal community of Montecito, as well as for parts of Carpinteria, Summerland, and the city of Santa Barbara, due to threats from the ongoing storm.

Santa Cruz County

Evacuation orders were issued Monday in parts of Santa Cruz County for about 32,000 residents living near rain-swollen rivers and creeks. The San Lorenzo River rose to flood stage, and drone footage showed numerous homes sitting in muddy brown water, the top halves of cars peeking out.

San Francisco, Sacramento, and Monterey Bay

The National Weather Service issued a flood watch through Tuesday for the entire San Francisco Bay Area, along with the Sacramento Valley and Monterey Bay.

Russian River

There is currently a flood warning in effect for Northern California’s Russian River in Mendocino County. Weather experts advise that motorists and those traveling through the area “turn around, don’t drown” when encountering flooded roads.

Lake Tahoe, Yosemite, and Mammoth Mountain

Storm systems have brought heavy snow to the Sierra Nevada mountain range, which includes Lake Tahoe, Yosemite, and Mammoth. Miles of Sierra highways have been subject to chain requirements and closures due to whiteout conditions, and avalanche warnings have been posted in the backcountry. The Eastern Sierra’s Mammoth Mountain ski resort reported 4.5 to 5.5 feet of snow on Tuesday, with more expected.

California state and national parks closures

Numerous state and national parks remained closed (or have areas of closure) as of January 10 due to the recent and ongoing storms, including:

  • Bolsa Chica and Crystal Cove state parks in Orange County
  • Bothe-Napa Valley and Sonoma Coast state parks in Napa and Sonoma counties
  • Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park in Del Norte County
  • Mount Tamalpais State Park in Marin County
  • Navarro River Redwoods, Russian Gulch, and Van Damme state parks in Mendocino County
  • Pinnacles National Park in central California
  • Pismo and Hearst San Simeon state parks in San Luis Obispo County
  • Redwood National and State Parks along Northern California’s coastline
  • Torrey Pines State Park in San Diego County

The California Department of Parks and Recreation is maintaining an updated list of park closures, and visitors should check regularly to see if parks they were planning to travel to are open and safe to visit. And the National Park Service also has a list of advisories and closures for California parks.

California highways

California state highway authorities reported Tuesday that parts of U.S. and state highways were closed because of flooding, mud, rockslides, heavy snow, or car crashes. The closures included lanes on U.S. highways 101 and 1, two main coastal routes. Be sure to check road conditions on the CalTrans site prior to driving.

What all this snow and rain means for California’s drought

While the current storms are bringing on a slew of short-term challenges, observers might be wondering if all this rain and snow is a good thing for drought-stricken California longer term. Sadly, it’s not that simple.

“The significant Sierra snowpack is good news but unfortunately these same storms are bringing flooding to parts of California,” stated Karla Nemeth, director of the California Department of Water Resources (DWR). “This is a prime example of the threat of extreme flooding during a prolonged drought as California experiences more swings between wet and dry periods brought on by our changing climate.”

The Sierra snowpack supplies about 30 percent of California’s water needs and is often referred to as California’s “frozen reservoir,” the agency reports. And thus, while the current precipitation could certainly help with much-needed snowpack and to refill the state’s reservoirs, there’s a long road ahead to minimizing the effects of the drought. Previous winters that saw strong rain and snowfall early in the season were followed by months of dry weather—for instance, record-breaking December 2021 snowfall was followed by the driest January through March period on record.

Stated Nemeth, “It’s always great to be above average this early in the season, but we must be resilient and remember what happened last year. If January through March of 2023 turn out to be similar to last year, we would still end the water year in severe drought with only half of an average year’s snowpack.”

Associated Press contributed reporting.

Michelle Baran is the senior travel news editor at AFAR where she oversees breaking news, travel intel, pandemic coverage, airline, cruise, and consumer travel news. Baran joined AFAR in August 2018 after an 11-year run as a senior editor and reporter at leading travel industry newspaper Travel Weekly.

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