Watch CBS News

Can this year's El Nino help fight California's drought?

Government scientists now say there is a 95 percent chance that a strong El Niño weather condition that is forming in the Pacific Ocean will continue through the winter
El Niño’s effects on the coming weather pattern 02:07

Government scientists say there is a 95 percent chance that a strong El Nino weather condition is forming in the Pacific Ocean and will continue through the winter. It could bring much-needed rain to the drought-ravaged West, CBS News' Ben Tracy reports.

What this year's El Nino will mean for the drought 01:17

The water in California's Lake Oroville used to be much higher, but the Golden State's reservoirs are running on empty. They've lost 6 trillion gallons of water during four years of punishing drought.

But wild and wet winter weather is now in the forecast for California, thanks to the intense warming of the Pacific Ocean near the equator known as El Nino.

NASA oceanographer Bill Patzert said El Nino should bring rain to California, but the Pacific Northwest, which has been ravaged by wildfires, is forecast to be drier than normal this winter.

Even heavy rain in Southern California is not a drought-buster. The area is engineered with concrete channels designed not to capture water, but rather to flush it out into the ocean to protect homes from flooding.

"We made a decision in Southern California many years ago to turn our great rivers into flood control channels," Patzert said. "Because remember, there's only one thing that's more important in California than water - real estate."

The state's largest reservoirs are in Northern California, where El Nino storms are much less likely to hit. Pacific Ocean temperatures are also so warm NASA hydrologist Jay Famiglietti is worried California will get rain but not the snow it desperately needs.

"Think of it as the big statewide freezer that keeps the water frozen in the mountains over the winter and then lets it thaw out slowly in the spring and trickle down into the reservoirs," Famiglietti said. "And so without the snow, there's nothing to melt."

That could leave those reservoirs still low and dry.

View CBS News In
CBS News App Open
Chrome Safari Continue
Be the first to know
Get browser notifications for breaking news, live events, and exclusive reporting.