Water & Drought

Only 17 percent of California still in drought, monitor says

Just 17 percent of California is in drought conditions, federal scientists say.
Just 17 percent of California is in drought conditions, federal scientists say. U.S. Drought Monitor

After weeks of pounding rains, overtopped levees and a near-catastrophe at the state’s second largest dam, most Californians probably believe the drought is over.

Scientists with the federal government more or less agree.

The U.S. Drought Monitor reported Thursday that just 17 percent of California is still suffering from the drought. That’s almost a complete turnaround from the start of the rainy season in early October, when almost 84 percent of the state was still in drought and just 16 percent was drought free.

The monitor said Northern California is completely free of drought. Of those areas still suffering from the drought, most are in “moderate” drought while a few are in “severe” drought. None of the state is in “extreme” or “exceptional” drought, the monitor’s two most serious categories.

The drought, which began more than five years ago, isn’t officially over until Gov. Jerry Brown lists his emergency drought declaration of 2014. Two weeks ago, the State Water Resources Control Board voted to extend its drought conservation regulations for another 270 days, although those regulations aren’t nearly as strict as they were a year ago.

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 state’s snow survey measured 28.1 inches of snow water content at Phillips Station off Highway 50, the highest measurement for February since 2005, state figures show.

Officials with the Brown administration have said they believe the weekly monitor doesn’t adequately take into account such factors as the “water deficit” that has accumulated since the drought began, particularly in the state’s overpumped aquifers.

Heavy rains and structural problems at Oroville Dam sparked the temporary evacuation of nearly 190,000 downstream residents Feb. 12, although the situation has stabilized significantly in recent days.

But other communities are continuing to deal with the fallout from one of the rainiest winters on record. About 14,000 residents had to evacuate in San Jose earlier this week, and the tiny Sacramento Valley farm town of Maxwell was flooded. Other communities have been on high alert as reservoirs fill up.

Dale Kasler: 916-321-1066, @dakasler