Recent storms push the dial on Southern California drought, but how much?

Herman Weaver
January 16, 2017

With local reservoirs now filled past capacity for this time of year and the Russian River still swollen with runoff, the U.S. Drought Monitor said Thursday that more than 41 percent of California - including the whole northern part of the state - is officially drought-free, a marked and gratifying shift from the weeks and months leading up to the new year, when even seasonally wet winter weather was not yet enough to declare the drought over.

"I think overall we've gotten through this drought amazingly well", Jay Lund, a water resources analyst at the University of California, Davis, said. The Santa Cruz Mountains and Monterey Bay as of last week were considered no longer in drought, but in "extremely dry" conditions, according to the weekly California Drought Map prepared by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

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Researchers have already suggested that warmer temperatures (which have risen by about 2.7 degrees F, or 1.5 degrees C, since preindustrial times globally) helped to worsen the drought of recent years. Since the last of the state's 10 largest reservoirs was completed in 1979, California has added 15 million residents.

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The governor is likely to wait until the end of winter to make a decision. It also means reservoirs may not be able to capture all the water - too much water too early in the season can be a flood threat and requires water managers to release water from reservoirs. Will it strengthen the storms that bring the state most of its water?

Ted Thomas, a spokesman for the Los Angeles Department of Water Resources, said he was cautiously optimistic and stressed that the impact of the long drought could not be erased overnight.

Miskus, who wrote Thursday's report, said that it does consider groundwater levels and that he talked with National Weather Service officials in Los Angeles and other California weather experts about the groundwater deficit.

The water board will continue to monitor conservation levels and water supply conditions, and will present a staff proposal to extend emergency conservation regulations for public discussion on January 18. It was part of the reason Southern California remains in drought conditions, he said, noting that Northern California does not have the same problems. "However, I'm cautiously optimistic that conditions are greatly improving".

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