The maps above represent drought conditions in California in January 2016 and January 2017. Photo credit: USGS/NOAA

Winter storms knock out worst of California drought

The maps above represent drought conditions in California in January 2016 and January 2017.
Photo credit: USGS/NOAA

Los Angeles, Calif. (NBCLA) — The worst of California’s drought has been wiped out by a series of powerful winter storms that included last weekend’s relentless downpours.

Last week, 2 percent of the state — a region northwest of Los Angeles — remained under “exceptional drought,” the most severe of the four drought categories listed by the weekly U.S. Drought Monitor report. This week’s report, the first since a freight train of storms rolled through the state, shows no areas of exceptional drought.

Three months ago, 21 percent of California was under exceptional drought.

The report marks another week of significant progress for a state in its sixth consecutive year of drought conditions. Fifty-one percent of the state remains in some category of drought, compared to 95 percent one year ago.

“We’re not completely out of the woods, but we’re moving in the right direction,” said NBC4 forecaster Crystal Egger.

Just 2 percent of California, an area that includes northwest Los Angeles County, a swath of Ventura County and a small part of Santa Barbara County, remains under extreme drought due primarily to low groundwater levels.

“It’s that the groundwater is still critically low,” Egger said. “It takes a while to build up that groundwater.”

The report also cautioned that most of the central foothills on the east side of California’s San Joaquin Valley and nearby mountain and valley communities depend heavily on groundwater.

“Potable water is still being trucked in to serve residents with dry wells in areas such as Tuolumne County, and the deepest wells may not respond to the recent inundation for many more months,” the report said.

The storms also brought steady snowfall to California’s mountains, leaving behind a snowpack that is 191 percent above average. At this point last year, the snowpack, which melts in spring and flows into the state’s major reservoirs, was at 75 percent of normal.

January typically is the wettest month in California, which will remain in a drought emergency until Gov. Jerry Brown approves changes to the order he issued in January 2014 to combat consecutive dry years. Brown issued that announcement on a patch of bare grass in the Sierras, which are now buried under snow.

The governor is likely to wait until the end of winter to make a decision. The order called on residents to cut water use by 25 percent, the first mandate of its kind in state history.

“It makes the most sense to continue steady as she goes,” State Water Resources Control Board chairwoman Felicia Marcus told The Associated Press after the latest in a series of storms brought record-breaking rainfall to parts of Southern California.

Marcus and the other four board members will decide Feb. 7 whether to extend measures requiring local water districts to enforce conservation rules, provide monthly reports on water usage and show they have a three-year water supply.

Marcus said in interviews this week that she is concerned that subsequent months could turn out dry and that California could again be forced to scramble to save water if the restrictions are not kept in place.

Water districts have been lobbying the board to back down. They say they are committed to conservation and better positioned than the state to ensure residents do not return to old habits.

Regardless of any action regulators take in February, state officials are moving to permanently ban water wasting habits such as spraying sidewalks with hoses, running sprinklers within 48 hours after measurable rainfall and washing cars using hoses that do not have turn-off nozzles.

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