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Despite all the rain, California's drought isn't over

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Extreme weather is a hallmark of a warming world, and here on the West Coast, we just got a sample of that. Record-breaking rain caused flooding and mudslides in California earlier this week. But, as NPR's Nathan Rott reports, it wasn't enough to end this region's record-breaking drought.

NATHAN ROTT, BYLINE: Earlier this month, Sacramento set a record for its longest dry spell - 212 days without rain. Then, earlier this week, it experienced its wettest day since record-keeping began in 1880.

JAY LUND: Oh, that was a very good start to the wet season, but it hasn't made a wet season, and it hasn't ended the drought.

ROTT: Jay Lund is with the University of California Davis' Center for Watershed Sciences, and he says the recent rain did put a dent in the California drought, and it sets the state up for even more water recharge later this spring by improving moisture levels in the chalk dry soil across much of the state. But it doesn't do as much for the larger water-parched West.

LUND: Because we took a lot of the moisture out of those storms when they hit us.

ROTT: Further inland and the rest of the Western U.S. is experiencing a decades-long megadrought, fueling water shortages and wildfires. The storm system that hit California did dump rain on Utah and Nevada, but New Mexico and Arizona saw far less. And hotter temperatures, which are a given with human-caused climate change, may make the shelf life of all that rain far shorter. Isla Simpson is with the National Center for Atmospheric Research.

ISLA SIMPSON: When it's hot, the atmosphere can hold more moisture. And so that means that if you have moisture available in the vegetation or in the soils and the rivers and the reservoirs, then you're going to see more evaporation of that moisture.

ROTT: Think of hotter air like a thirsty sponge that sucks up any available water. Another concern is snowpack. Most of the West gets its groundwater and reservoirs refilled by the steady melt of snow. Warmer temperatures mean faster melt, all of which means severe droughts like the West is still experiencing today aren't going away anytime soon.

Nathan Rott, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.