The absolute worst of the drought has disappeared in California.
For the first time in three years, not a single area of California is considered in “exceptional drought,” the most severe category, according to a U.S. government estimate released Thursday. All told, 48.6 percent of the state is completely drought free, the weekly U.S. Drought Monitor reported, up from 42 percent last week. A year ago, only 5 percent of California had escaped the drought.
The closely watched Drought Monitor, an analysis conducted by the National Drought Mitigation Center and key federal agencies, was released as political pressure mounts on Gov. Jerry Brown to end his statewide drought emergency declaration and its restrictions on water usage.
The board of one of the largest water agencies in the state, the San Diego County Water Authority, passed a resolution Thursday declaring the drought over in its region and urging Brown to let the statewide emergency expire “based on improved hydrologic conditions.” San Diego officials argued, as have their counterparts in Sacramento, that they risk losing credibility with customers if they continue to broadcast a drought emergency. The agency made its declaration even as the Drought Monitor continues to list the San Diego region as being in moderate to severe drought.
The Drought Monitor’s latest findings follow two weeks of off-and-on heavy precipitation that intensified one of the wettest winters in years. The Sierra Nevada snowpack is 189 percent of normal. Sacramento has received nearly as much rain already than it normally does the entire season. California’s two largest reservoirs, Shasta and Oroville, have far more water in storage than usual for late January.
What’s more, the rain finally is coming down in earnest in the southern half of the state. Much of California south of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta is still considered in drought because of the lasting impact of years of unusually dry weather. But conditions have improved: San Diego’s rainfall this season is 168 percent of normal and Long Beach’s is more than twice the norm. San Luis Reservoir, one of the most important reservoirs serving Southern California and the San Joaquin Valley, is 79 percent full after falling dangerously low last summer.
Only about 2 percent of the state, mainly in the vicinity of Santa Barbara, is considered in “extreme drought,” the second-highest category in the Drought Monitor ratings.
The Drought Monitor is updated weekly by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and the National Drought Mitigation Center at the University of Nebraska. The analysis is based on precipitation volumes, depth of the Sierra Nevada snowpack, water levels in the key reservoirs, groundwater conditions and strength of river flows.
The Brown administration doesn’t appear ready to declare the drought over. Administration officials said the Drought Monitor doesn’t take into account a variety of factors, including the depletion of groundwater supplies in the Central Valley in recent years and the fact that the southern half of the state – the part still facing drought and where most of the people live – is largely dependent on water piped in from Northern California through the Delta.
Brown’s aides also said that extremely dry conditions could return without warning, as they have in the past. Notably, after Brown signed an order ending the last statewide drought emergency, toward the end of the rainy winter of 2010-11, he felt compelled to declare another emergency just three years later when drought returned with a vengeance and California endured some of its driest years ever. A year later, in 2015, he imposed the state’s first statewide conservation standards, requiring all urban agencies to reduce consumption by an average of 25 percent compared with 2013.
“In the last 10 water years, eight have been dry, one wet, one average,” said Nancy Vogel, spokeswoman for the Natural Resources Agency. “Although this year may end up being wet, we can’t say whether it’s just going to be one wet year in another string of dry ones.” The water year runs from October through September.
Brown’s drought restrictions already have been eased considerably. Last spring, following a return to normal winter rains in Northern California, the 25 percent mandate was lifted for any agency that could show it had enough water to withstand three consecutive dry years.
About 80 percent of the agencies now operate without statewide mandates, and water usage has risen. Even so, urban consumption is still about 20 percent below the levels recorded in 2013.
Despite the easing of the conservation rules, the governor’s drought proclamation remains a sore point for many urban water agencies. The proclamation is set to expire Feb. 28. California’s main drought regulator, the State Water Resources Control Board, is considering whether to keep the rules in place for at least a few more months.
“If you go out and ask 10 Californians on the street if they think we’re still in a drought, you’re going to get 10, ‘No, we’re not,’” said Tim Quinn of the Association of California Water Agencies.
Local agencies have spent huge sums on conservation and other drought resiliency programs, and are willing to continue doing so, but “we think it’s a mistake to do so under the banner of drought,” Quinn said. “You do lose credibility with the public.”
Some urban agencies, including the city of Sacramento, continue to restrict landscape watering. Sacramento officials said they are maintaining the restrictions – no more than once a week of watering in winter, and twice a week in summer – indefinitely.
“The city is transitioning from emergency drought response to a long-term, sustainable culture of effective water use,” said Utilities Director Bill Busath. “You can maintain a relatively green lawn watering two days a week.”