It's been dumping rain, snow in California and Nevada. Does that mean the drought is over?

Amy Alonzo
Reno Gazette Journal
The Washoe Valley is seen covered in snow and ice on Jan. 3.

Western Nevada and the Sierra Nevada started off the year with record rain and snowfall. So, is the drought over?

Not exactly.

Several weeks of heavy rain and snow can’t undo years of dry conditions, according to climate experts. A quarter of Nevada is still in extreme drought, including northern Washoe County, with the rest of the state in at least a moderate level of drought.

The region is coming off its second-driest consecutive three years on record – last year, record-breaking storms pushed the Tahoe-area snowpack to 200 percent of normal by January 1 before winter all but disappeared. January and February of 2022 saw some of the lowest precipitation levels on record for the first two months of 2022 throughout the Sierra.

Forecasters don’t know how much more precipitation the area will receive this winter, or when it will come. The timing of future storms impacts spring runoff, groundwater recharge, when plants green up and soil moisture – all key components that indicate the severity of drought conditions.

Understanding how the region can still be in a drought with so much precipitation is complicated, especially since drought metrics and characteristics sometimes have contradictory messages, according to state climatologist Steph McAfee.

For example, if the soil is really dry, more water will soak into the ground and less will make its way into streams, lakes and reservoirs.

Because the West relies on reservoirs for water, it takes more than one good month to refill them. But water managers also can’t let reservoirs get too full in winter; during periods of high winter precipitation, water is often discharged to retain space in the reservoirs for flood control in the spring.

For vegetation, if the snow melts too early and it’s a warm spring, plants green up early and dry out by summer, increasing fire danger. But a small amount of rain at just the right time during a dry year can be very beneficial to some plants, so there might be a year when precipitation levels are low, but rangeland health looks great, according to McAfee.

Complicated metrics aside, forecasters and climatologists agree that the initial water numbers look pretty darn good for Reno and Tahoe.

Reno usually receives about 3.2 inches of rain between October 1 and mid-January; so far this year, the city has received almost eight inches.

The nine atmospheric rivers between Christmas and January 19 brought the snowpack up to 200 to 300 percent of median across the Sierra Nevada. Some areas received the equivalent of their total annual precipitation during those three weeks.

And long-range models for early February look “pretty busy,” meaning it is likely more wet and chilly weather is headed to the West Coast, according to Joe Casola, western regional climate services director for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association.

Amy Alonzo covers the outdoors, recreation and environment for Nevada and Lake Tahoe. Reach her at