For the first time in four years, more than half of California’s land area is no longer classified as being in drought conditions by the federal government
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Altogether, 53 percent of California has seen enough precipitation, and its reservoirs and groundwater levels filled so much that it is not in drought, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor, a weekly report issued by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the University of Nebraska. A year ago, just 5 percent of the state was out of drought.
“The cumulative effect of several months of abundant precipitation has significantly improved drought conditions across the state,” wrote David Simeral, a meteorologist with the Western Regional Climate Center in Reno, the author of the new report.
In the past week alone, roughly 4.1 million more acres, most of it in the Central Sierra Nevada, has emerged from drought — an area 12 times the size of the city of Los Angeles.
A relentless series of powerful storms has set records, bringing a breathtaking amount of rain and snow to the state. On Wednesday, the Sierra snowpack stood at 184 percent of the historic average, the biggest in 22 years, and 127 percent of the April 1 average.
Boreal Ski Resort at Donner Summit near Lake Tahoe has so far received 37 feet of snow this winter, with Kirkwood at 35 feet and Northstar at 34 feet.
Most of the state’s largest reservoirs are well above their historic averages, and in fact are releasing water to keep some room for flood safety. Shasta, near Redding was 85 percent full Wednesday; Oroville, in Butte County was 84 percent full; and San Luis, east of Gilroy, is 88 percent full.
State water engineers rushed earlier this week to fix a large hole that was carved out of the spillway at Oroville Dam, the tallest dam in the United States at 770 feet, when a section of the concrete failed while large amounts of water were released. The dam is not at risk of failure, the State Department of Water Resources said, but the agency has only three days at current inflow rates before the reservoir will fill to the top. To keep billions of gallons of water from flowing uncontrollably over the top — or down the emergency spillway, which pours into an expanse of trees and dirt — the state is likely to allow water to continue down the regular spillway, probably eroding and further damaging it, until dry weather starting on Saturday gives engineers the opportunity to try and attempt a temporary fix.
When it comes to water storage, even Southern California reservoirs are seeing significant improvement after years of low levels, with more storms hitting the state Thursday and more on the way next week. Although Lake Cachuma Reservoir in Santa Barbara County is just 14 percent full, it is the exception. Castaic Lake in Los Angeles County is 87 percent full, and Diamond Valley Lake in Riverside County is 75 percent full.
Meanwhile, the Municipal Water District of Orange County, which serves 2 million people, on Monday declared its drought emergency over.
All of the Northern California coast, from Monterey to the Oregon border, is no longer in drought, according the report, as is the Bay Area and the rest of Northern California from Lake Tahoe to the state line. The San Joaquin Valley and most of Southern California remains in “moderate drought” according to the report, and as of this week, only 11 percent of California, much of it in the Santa Barbara and Ventura county areas, is in severe drought or extreme drought — down from 81 percent a year ago.
On Wednesday, the State Water Resources Control Board, citing caution, voted to continue mild drought rules across the state, such as requiring water agencies to report their use each month, and banning wasteful practices like hosing off pavement or washing cars without nozzles on the hose. The board members said they will re-evaluate the rules in May after the end of the winter season.
“We are beyond happy that water conditions continue to improve this year, but the rainy season isn’t over yet and some areas of the state continue to suffer significant drought impacts,” said Felicia Marcus, chairwoman of the board. “As glorious as the first half of the season has been, we know that weather can change quickly, and vary depending on where you are, so it is most prudent to wait a bit longer until close of the rainy season to take stock of the statewide situation and decide what to do next.”