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California snowpack nears two-decade high. Is the drought close to over?

The Golden State’s snowpack has grown meteorically in the last weeks, with more snow expected to blanket the California Sierra in the coming days.

On Thursday the state’s snowpack registered at 18.4 inches, up from just 11.3 inches at Christmas. That’s about 70% of the snowpack that we usually accumulate by the end of the snowy season on April 1. While that doesn’t sound like a lot of snow — winter storms can dump two feet of snow at a time — the number is capturing something called the “snow water equivalent.” That’s the depth of water that would cover the ground if all the snow melted.

And it’s likely to go up again this coming week. The National Weather Service forecasts that the ongoing slate of storms slamming the state will dump up to 20 inches of fresh snow on the Tahoe Basin’s largest peaks by Friday morning.

But what does this all mean for the California drought? Looking at past year’s data, it’s clear that early downpours do not always lead to bountiful end-of-season snowpacks. Of the seven years in the last two decades where the state registered above average snowpack on Jan. 5, only four ended the snowy season with above average snow hauls.

And many of the state’s reservoirs are still well below their typical levels for this time of year. Without consistent precipitation in the coming months, we may once again find ourselves gripped by drought by next summer.

But this season is already an outlier. On Thursday, California had the second largest snowpack for this time of year in the last two decades. Only 2007 beat this year’s haul. And with so much additional snow in the forecast, this year may yet catch up.

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