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Flowers are blooming in the desert. Flooding and sewage spills have largely receded. Dams continue to collect runoff. But the drought is still far from over.
San Diego recently weathered a month-long series of storms that also blanketed much of the West with badly needed snow. Still, the possibility of state-mandated water restrictions loom over the region this year, especially if dry conditions return to the Sierra Nevada.
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Residents and local officials in San Diego are now taking stock of the situation as the deluges appear to be giving way to sunnier skies. While urban areas are still riddled with potholes and beach closures, rains have revived parched natural landscapes.
Nowhere in San Diego County are these effects more pronounced than east of mountains in the Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, where storms have produced a rare winter bloom.
“It’s a much larger scale than I’ve ever seen in 60 years,” said Mark Jorgensen, longtime resident and former park superintendent. “Pretty cool. It means a lot to the wildlife after such a hard-hitting drought.”
Downpours in the desert — totaling about 4.5 inches since September — have spurred the flowering of several plant species, from purple-colored sand verbena to the iconic, red-tipped ocotillo.
“The gamut of annual wildflowers is spectacular,” said Jim Dice, reserve manager for UC Irvine’s Anza-Borrego Desert Research Center. “I mean, things blooming in December and January that I’ve never seen at this time of year: blazing star, bristling gilia, evening primrose, desert sunflower.”
Meanwhile, park officials said wildlife “guzzlers” that help feed sheep and other wild animals have been filled to the brim by recent precipitation. Last year, the park faced allegations of neglecting the system of tanks and feeder boxes that have helped the federally endangered Peninsular bighorn sheep rebound from the brink of extinction.
In the mountains west of the desert, storms benefited drought-stressed trees — while also generating some chaos. Dirt roads were washed out in many places, creating precarious conditions for those exploring the backcountry.
“Creeks and streams are swollen and flowing faster than usual,” said Nathan Judy, spokesperson for the Cleveland National Forest. “Visitors hiking in areas with flowing water need to be cautious traversing those areas or turning around so they don’t get into trouble.”
A large bluff collapse in La Jolla on Friday, likely triggered by stormwater runoff, put a harrowing cap on the situation. No injuries were reported.
It might seem like San Diego’s drought woes should be over given all this wet weather. But officials explained that local rain has little impact on the region’s overall water supply.
San Diego imports nearly 60 percent of its water from the Colorado River. Another 16 percent comes from the Los Angeles-based Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, which is largely impacted by Sierra Nevada snowpack. Only about 10 percent of supplies come from local surface flows and groundwater, with the rest provided through desalination and recycling.
While the Rocky Mountains are now covered in fresh powder, water managers warn the long-term outlook for the Colorado River remains dire.
“It’s critical that residents and businesses continue to reduce water waste and stretch the value of each drop,” the region’s wholesaler San Diego County Water Authority said in an email. “While the recent storms brought welcome relief, we are facing a new reality in which long hot and dry spells are the norm, and we need to be mindful of the future.”
Gov. Gavin Newsom has signaled the potential for mandatory statewide cuts in water use this year if drought conditions persist. California’s snowpack now stands at about 240 percent of normal, and collectively the state’s reservoirs are just shy of average for this time of year. However, many reservoirs are still far below, such as Trinity Lake east of Humboldt County and the San Luis Reservoir in the Central Valley.
Drought conditions will hinge on how much precipitation continues to accumulate in the northern part of the state over the next two months, said Daniel Cayan, climate researcher at UC San Diego’s Scripps Institution of Oceanography.
“We’re only about halfway through the wet season here in California,” he said. “We’ve done very well, but I don’t think we can declare the longer term dry spell as being voided out here.”
Recent rains did, however, provide temporary relief for many local farmers. In the idyllic San Pasqual Valley east of Escondido, for example, the storms helped recharge groundwater levels, which can fluctuate considerably depending on precipitation.
Dairy Farmer Frank Konyn, who also pumps water to irrigate barley crops, said the recent weather has been a “blessing.”
“You get a good flushing of the soil,” he said. “There’s something magical about rainwater. I can see myself getting possibly two cuttings instead of one off those fields.”
The rain also gave some smaller water districts a modest boost. For example, the Sweetwater Authority, which serves National City, western Chula Vista and Bonita, benefited from flows into its groundwater basin and two reservoirs.
“When it rains, we refer to it as ‘pennies from the sky,’” said General Manager Carlos Quintero. “This is really helpful and certainly helps us keep the rates low, but our reservoirs are still not in the best of shape.”
The city of San Diego was also able to capture a little rainfall in its network of artificial lakes. San Vicente, the region’s largest reservoir, is now more than half full. But ongoing repairs at the beleaguered Lake Hodges has required releases of about 13 million gallons of water a day into the San Dieguito River.
The deluges also caused significant damage, from widespread flooding in Mission Valley to fallen trees to clogged storm drains. The city recently dispatched 150 workers to tackle the backlog of potholes and street repairs.
Gregory Montoya said he and neighbors were frantically trying to unclog storm drains on Beta Street during the downpour. The 67-year-old said his Southcrest community has regularly flooded for decades.
“The water did come up to the edge of the house,” he said, “but luckily it didn’t go in this time.”
Meanwhile, a sewage spill of half a million gallons in downtown San Diego triggered the closure of San Diego Bay. Beaches were also shuttered from Coronado to Imperial Beach largely due to polluted stormwater flowing over the border from Tijuana. A separate sewage spill in San Marcos closed beach access around the Batiquitos Lagoon State Marine Conservation Area.
Since the rainy season began on Oct. 1, San Diego International Airport has recorded 7.54 inches of precipitation, which is 4.31 inches more than average for this time of year.
Staff writer Gary Robbins contributed to this report.