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Could the drought soon be over? It depends on what we mean by 'drought'

California’s most recent drought has stretched on for more than three years now. So people took notice when a San Diego scientist told the San Jose Mercury News Wednesday that the drought could be over with a few more weeks of storms like the ones we’ve been having.

Marty Ralph is the director of the Center for Western Weather and Water Extremes at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, part of UC San Diego. He is also a leading expert on atmospheric rivers.

In a Thursday interview with KPBS, Ralph explained his statement to the newspaper. “I think there’s something we could call landscape drought, which is like the plants and all that growing in the soils and the soils themselves," Ralph said.

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That "landscape drought" is what he was referring to on Wednesday. "But the deeper groundwater things, that’s a long haul to recover. That’s going to be decades of good management and additional precipitation," Ralph told KPBS.

Still, National Weather Service Meteorologist Alex Tardy said all the wet weather has been "a great start to what we call the water year."

Tardy said he agrees with Ralph. Now, we wait to see what happens over the course of the next couple of months.

When it comes to drought-ending weather, Mother Nature has tricked us before. We’ve had those years where we’ll get a lot of rain in December, maybe some in January — and then that’s it. 

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But Tardy said this time, it seems to be different. He said there are five atmospheric rivers lined up across the planet, headed straight for California.

“They’re actually coming across Europe and Asia and across the Pacific, so we can actually track them," said Tardy.

Tardy and Ralph said the bulk of that rain is headed to central California, to a parched San Joaquin Valley that desperately needs it. Plus, the snowpack in the Sierra is already 120% of average.

The flip side of getting all that precipitation is possible flooding and mudslides.

But for now, the skies look to bring relief that may end what you might call the surface drought - and get us closer to the years-long process of refilling huge reservoirs like Lakes Powell and Mead and recharging the state’s depleted groundwater.