SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) — Mired in an historic drought, California is set to get its first significant soaking of the season this week with storms forecasted to dump up to 7 inches (18 centimeters) of rain in some parched parts of the state.
The storms will help quash smoldering wildfires in the mountains that have collectively burned more than 3,898 square miles (10,096 square kilometers) this year while destroying more than 3,600 structures.
Going forward, the rain could help prevent some late-season blazes that have devastated the state in recent years, including a 2018 fire in November that killed 85 people and nearly destroyed the Northern California town of Paradise.
California got a taste of what’s coming over the weekend, when smaller storms sprinkled some areas in the valley while dumping 10 inches (25 centimeters) of snow in higher elevations of the Sierra Nevada mountains. But the rains coming later this week — as early as Wednesday and continuing into next week — could be the biggest storms the state’s Central Valley region has seen in nine months.
“This is definitely going to be one of those ground soaking events,” said Emily Heller, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Sacramento.
Much of the U.S. West is in the midst of a severe drought that has strained water resources throughout the region. California has been hit especially hard, having some of the hottest, driest months on record in the past year.
On Tuesday, state water officials said the rain could be enough to lessen some water restrictions imposed on farmers earlier this year. But it won’t be enough to catch California up on all the water lost this summer.
“One storm is great, but we’re going to need a couple to get us back to a robust and healthy storage condition,” Erik Ekdahl, a deputy director for the State Water Resources Control Board, told board members on Tuesday.
California relies on a system of giant reservoirs to store water during the state’s rainy and snowy winter months. Those reservoirs help provide drinking water to about 27 million people in the nation’s most populous state.
But some of California’s most important reservoirs are at or near historic lows heading into the rainy season. If California has another dry winter like last year, state officials on Tuesday warned one reservoir — Lake Mendocino about 120 miles (193 kilometers) north of San Francisco — could be dry by the summer.
In July, Gov. Gavin Newsom asked people and businesses to voluntarily reduce their water usage by 15% this year. So far, Californians have cut back just 3.5%, according to new data released Tuesday. The most significant reductions in August — 18.1% — came along the state’s sparsely populated north coast, where drought restrictions have been in place for much of the year.
But the south coast, home to more than half of the state’s nearly 40 million residents, cut water usage by just 3.1% in August.
Still, Californians nearly doubled their water conservation in August compared to July, when they reduced consumption by just 1.8%. State Water Resources Control Board chair E. Joaquin Esquivel said that just shows it takes time “for the message to spread.” But he said Californians need to “double down” on their conservation efforts.
The week’s first storm moved through Sunday night, bringing enough snow to shut down highways over the Sierra’s higher passes and require chains for vehicles on Interstate 80. The UC Berkeley Central Sierra Snow Lab at Donner Pass reported 10.3 inches (26.1 centimeters) of snow by 8 a.m. Monday.
“That was a pretty wild ride for the first real storm of the year,” the California Highway Patrol’s Truckee office tweeted.
Light rain was expected to continue Wednesday, followed by “progressively wetter systems” Thursday and Friday, and then more precipitation over the weekend and into next week, the Sacramento weather office said.