Water & Drought

California extends emergency drought regulations despite heavy rain, snow

The rain-swollen Sacramento River flows through downtown under the Tower Bridge on Jan. 12 in Sacramento.
The rain-swollen Sacramento River flows through downtown under the Tower Bridge on Jan. 12 in Sacramento. rpench@sacbee.com

The State Water Resources Control Board on Wednesday voted to keep statewide emergency drought controls in effect, even as most of California sees historic amounts of rain and snow.

The drought regulations, which have been greatly relaxed in recent months, will run at least another 270 days. After ordering urban agencies to slash consumption by an average of 25 percent in 2015, the board lifted the mandate last spring for agencies that could show at least three years’ worth of water on hand. Eighty percent of the agencies told the state they met that test. Water agencies that couldn’t pass the test identified conservation targets or kept targets already in place.

“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,” board chair Felicia Marcus said in a statement. “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.”

Water agencies – including those in the Sacramento region – have been urging the state board to lift the rules altogether, arguing that they’re losing credibility with customers by pleading drought in a wet winter.

The Metropolitan Water District of Southern California put out a statement shortly after the board’s vote Wednesday expressing its disappointment.

“We are no longer in a drought emergency,” said Jeffrey Kightlinger, Metropolitan’s general manager.

Nearly every major city in the state has seen above-average precipitation this water year, which started in October, including communities in Southern California. Sacramento is at 211 percent of normal. The Sierra Nevada snowpack, which serves as a water bank of sorts for the state, sits at 184 percent of average for this time of year. Most of the state’s major reservoirs are at above-average depths.

Even so, experts say that after years of punishing drought, groundwater aquifers in the Central Valley and Southern California remain overdrafted and could remain so for decades.

The Sacramento River at Hamilton City Bridge is at flood stage at 148 feet, according to the Glenn County Office of Emergency Services.

Phillip Reese: 916-321-1137, @PhillipHReese

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