With a continued barrage of rain and snowstorms, half of California is no longer in a drought, but the Central Valley remains under at least moderately dry conditions, federal scientists reported this week.
The entire northern part of the state, essentially from San Francisco to the Oregon border, is completely free of drought according to a release Thursday from the United States Drought Monitor, a weekly report provided by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, U.S. Department of Agriculture, and University of Nebraska in Lincoln.
A little more than 50% of the state is still under drought conditions, ranging from “moderate” to “extreme” drought. A year ago, more than 95% of California fell under those designations.
“We’re finally seeing enough precipitation falling to make a significant dent,” Richard Tinker, a meteorologist who helped compile the report told The Mercury News. “These are tangible improvements. There’s a difference between above-normal and ridiculous, which is what you’ve seen recently.”
On Thursday, the California Department of Water Resources noted a significant increase in the Sierra Nevada snowpack, which supplies about a third of California’s water supply.
On Jan. 3, just six inches of snow was found at the Phillips Station, the DWR reported, but today (Friday), that number jumped to 28.1 inches.
Statewide, the DWR reported the snowpack is at about 171% of average. To date, the DWR said the Central Sierra snowpack is at 174% of yearly average with 32.9 inches of snow, followed by 198% in the Southern Sierra (32.8 inches), and 145% in the north (26.8 inches). The Sierra snowpack provides about a third of California’s entire water supply.
The drought report noted that late last month, none of the state remained under the worst designation of “exceptional drought.” Last year, 40% of the state was in an exceptional drought, including much of the Central Valley.
Los Angeles and its surrounding location remains the hardest hit area in the state, and the only area with a portion under “extreme” drought.
Despite the state’s ongoing drought, all numbers have vastly improved. Three months ago, more than 75% of the state was in some state of dryness, with more than 40% under at least extreme conditions. Now, those numbers have decreased to 50.80% and 1.87%.
Central Valley impacts
It’s not clear what the latest changes to California’s drought status mean for the Mountain Area and Central Valley.
In a release, the DWR said many Californians “continue to experience the effects of drought and a number of Central Valley communities still depend on water tanks and bottled water.”
The DWR added some reservoirs are still at lower capacities, and it will take “much more than a few storms” for the state to be fully replenished.
George Kostyrky, public information officer for the State Water Resources Control Board, said Gov. Jerry Brown’s emergency declarations in April of 2015 remain largely in place.
The declaration, which took effect in June that year, ordered everyone in California to strive for a total of 25% conservation on water use by cutting back on things like watering landscapes and washing cars on sidewalks.
So far, the state has conserved 22.6% of water used from June 2015 to November 2016, Kostyrky said.
“These emergency regulations will expire at the end of Feburary, and the board is going to consider whether or not to renew them, continue them, or let them lapse,” Kostyrky said.
Some farmers believe there’s little to no chance the state will relax those restrictions.
Anja Raudabaugh, CEO of Western United Dairymen, said there’s yet to be a green light on more water allocations by the Bureau of Reclamation after a 15% release to Central Valley farmers last year.
“Most farmers are suspicious of the fact that we’re basically going to be kept in a constant state of crisis,” Raudabaugh said. “It’s been an endless era of drought declarations ... obviously we’re ecstatic about the level of rain and everything else, but if we don’t see increased water releases, we’ll mostly have to turn to groundwater and other sources when there’s an ample supply of surface water.”
David Artiaga, part owner of H & B Drilling Inc. in Oakhurst and a source of knowledge on groundwater impacts, added his view the drought is far from over.
“My dad used to tell me that what happens up in the high country can take up to seven years to really affect our groundwater down here,” Artiaga said. “Even when we have good winters with a good snowpack, if you measure the same well over time, it will take years for it to see any real effect.
“I know with this great winter we’ve had, people keep saying the drought’s over in some parts of the state,” he continued. “But I hold back saying that because one good winter won’t make up for four or five bad ones.”