Photos Show U.S. Reservoirs Before and After Recent Storms

  • Recent storms in California have filled some reservoirs to the brim for the first time in years.
  • California is no longer suffering from extreme or exceptional drought, but larger reservoirs like Lake Mead and Lake Powell remain at record lows.
  • Snowpack melt from the mountains could benefit depleted reservoirs later in the season.

Excessive rain in California has filled some reservoirs to the brim, and startling photos show the vast difference in water levels as extreme drought is being followed by relief.

A series of atmospheric rivers have dumped excessive rain on California in recent weeks. In higher elevations, the storms have brought snow, which will benefit the reservoirs later in the season with the snowpack melt. Although posing a life-threatening flood risk, the storms are replenishing reservoirs in California and nearby states—some that haven't been full for years.

Past photos on Twitter showed dwindling reservoir levels and parched land in multiple states, but just a few months later, the reservoirs are telling a different story.

Lake Oroville, California's second-largest reservoir, rose over 200 feet since its lowest level, in September 2021. The recovery is in part due to the recent storms.

Other reservoirs in California also have been replenished, including the Whale Rock Reservoir in San Luis Obispo County. The reservoir recently overflowed, which hasn't happened since 2005. Until recently, the reservoir has remained below 90 percent capacity for the past four years.

Lake Oroville levels in drought
A section of Lake Oroville is seen nearly dry on August 19, 2014, in Oroville, California. Recently, the reservoir has risen over 200 feet after excessive rain in the state. Getty

Earlier this month, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation shared striking before-and-after photos of the San Luis Reservoir in California. The photos show a steep rise in water levels.

"What a difference a few months can make! CA's San Luis Reservoir is looking a whole lot better than last summer—currently 81% full! The nation's largest offstream reservoir provides critical water supply to farms, communities & refuges," the bureau tweeted.

Reservoirs outside of California are filling up too. In Utah, the Gunlock Reservoir filled to the point of overflow, causing water to cascade down the spillway.

"Gunlock reservoir has gone over the spillway as of 3am (a rare occurrence)," the National Weather Service's (NWS) office in Salt Lake City tweeted.

AccuWeather meteorologist Brandon Buckingham told Newsweek that California's extreme weather this winter has "undoubtedly benefited state water reserves."

A U.S. Drought Monitor map shows the astonishing relief for the state, with California no longer suffering from extreme or exceptional drought. Last fall, more than half of the state was experiencing extreme or exceptional drought. Now, 44 percent of the state is free from any drought.

AccuWeather predicts all of California's short-term drought could be eliminated by mid-April after California's wet season ends. At that point, increased snowpack in the mountains could further relieve stress on reservoirs throughout the summer as it melts.

Despite the drought relief, larger reservoirs like Lake Mead and Lake Powell remain at record lows and will take longer to fill. New restrictions for states receiving water from the Colorado River—which supplements the reservoirs—will go into effect this year despite minor recovery from rain.

Recent storms have supplemented the reservoirs' low levels, but the NWS said real relief is more likely with snowpack melt rather than rainstorms. And that relief will take time.

In January, NWS Las Vegas said that excessive rain is just a "drop" when it comes to refilling a depleted Lake Mead.

"Rain in #Vegas is directed to Lake Mead. However, it's just a drop in the proverbial bucket that is #LakeMead. The real contributor to Lake Mead's water levels is snowmelt from the western Rockies," NWS Las Vegas tweeted.

NWS Las Vegas also said that snowpack in the Rockies, when melted, flows to Lake Mead. Despite snowpack being above average, the NWS added, it will take more than "just 1 year to make a meaningful difference" in the United States' largest reservoir.