Natalie Hanson

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (CN) — An onslaught of strong winter storms has lifted many parts of California out of severe drought, but they've also led Governor Gavin Newsom to declare states of emergency in many counties.

A new U.S. Drought Monitor report released Thursday shows that more than half of the state is now out of severe drought, though many of those areas are still labeled "abnormally dry" — the first stage of drought.

Parts of the northern Sacramento Valley and the inland southeast state remain in severe drought, but it is good news for the Golden State after more than three years of a historic dry spell. Three months ago, 40% of the state was in extreme or exceptional drought.

However, state authorities have cautioned the true effects of the surprisingly wet winter on California's depleted groundwater supplies will not be known until April or after. The state has seen many trees die and thousands of wells reported dry, as aquifers recharge very slowly.

Due to the severe winter storms, Newsom declared a state of emergency even as more cold and wet systems take aim at the Golden State. The declaration frees up funding to support disaster response and relief in Amador, Kern, Los Angeles, Madera, Mariposa, Mono, Nevada, San Bernardino, San Luis Obispo, Santa Barbara, Sierra, Sonoma and Tulare counties.

He said the recent storms have damaged and forced the closure of federal and state highways and roads, leading to evacuations of residents and motorists while ongoing dangerous conditions threaten critical infrastructure and power outages.

Caltrans District 3 has been releasing constant updates on clearing highways including Interstate 80 between the California side of Lake Tahoe into western Nevada. The agency wrote on Twitter on Wednesday night "Not sure how those not on the interstate can say the roadway is 'clear' but we are working to get enough space on WB I-80 to reopen soon. As can be seen, it's not clear and there is no shoulder room to pull over in an emergency in several locations. We're close."

Forecasters say more storms are coming and will threaten counties across California, bringing strong winds, blizzard conditions across the Sierra Nevada mountains, above normal precipitation and unusually cold temperatures. The National Weather Service said in a tweet that caution is needed when traveling over the weekend, due to dangerous or impassable roads. And forecasters remain fairly confident the first half of March will see more wet weather.

Newsom activated the State Operations Center to help support county-led emergency response efforts and coordinate mutual aid from neighboring jurisdictions.

Much of California is now out of a severe drought, although many regions remain abnormally dry. (U.S. Drought Monitor via Courthouse News)
Much of California is now out of a severe drought, although many regions remain abnormally dry. (U.S. Drought Monitor via Courthouse News)

San Bernardino County is of particular concern and the governor’s office reported “significant numbers of state personnel are on the ground” there, including from the Office of Emergency Services, Caltrans and the California Highway Patrol. The county’s Incident Command is leading to rapidly deploy resources and address emergency management needs.

The state is also bringing more snow plows and road crews with personnel from Cal Fire and the California National Guard as support. Some private companies have already been contracted to accelerate snow removal and clear roadways, and the state is coordinating with investor-owned utilities to rapidly restore power.

Residents in San Bernardino County will soon have two shelters operating and the state is coordinating with law enforcement to escort power companies, food and water deliveries and service providers to affected areas to help vulnerable populations.

Newsom last declared a state of emergency during a run of strong atmospheric storms in January that left many cities flooded and stranded thousands of residents. That emergency garnered a federal response from the Biden administration.