In wake of powerful storms, more than 40% of California is free of drought

Vines at a vineyard stand in floodwaters on January 10, 2017 in Forestville, California.
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Vines at a vineyard stand in floodwaters on January 10, 2017 in Forestville, California.

The drought isn't over in California but major storm activity produced a dramatic improvement in the worst drought conditions, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor released early Thursday.

The monitor found just 2 percent of the state now is in "exceptional" drought, or D4 — the worst category. That's down from last week when the Monitor found 18 percent of California in D4 conditions.

Overall, about 58 percent of the state remains in drought conditions, according to the latest reading. But that's down from about 68 percent last week and well below three months ago when 97 percent of the state was classified as in drought.

"Drought is pretty much over in Northern California," said David Miskus, a senior meteorologist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and one of the authors of the monitor. "Still got a way to go in Southern California."

Drought conditions improved across the state due to a major storm system, which dumped rain throughout Northern and Central California and in Southern California. Large portions of the Central Valley, which had been in the worst drought conditions, are now downgraded to "extreme" drought (or D3) from "exceptional" (D4).

"A plethora of Pacific storms and moisture slammed into California and most of the West, dumping copious amounts of precipitation on the northern two-thirds of the state and Sierra Nevada," the drought agency said Thursday. More than a foot of precipitation fell the Sierra Nevada and most major reservoirs in California were at or above their historical average, it said.

The recent storms have produced flooding in several Northern California counties and forced officials to empty major reservoirs to reduce flood risks. The storm is being compared to a system in December 2005 that caused about $300 million in damage.

Southern California received rain but not nearly as much as in other portions of the state. Cities such as Los Angeles and San Diego were above their average rainfalls for this time but remained in "extreme" or "exceptional" drought conditions.

In the last seven days, there's been 18 to 24 inches of precipitation in the Sierras, according to the National Weather Service. Rain totals in the Central Valley have ranged from 3 to 8 inches and in the San Francisco Bay area some areas had as much as 6 inches of precipitation.

Sonoma County's Russian River, north of San Francisco, was slightly above flood stage after more than 20 inches of rain in the last week. Forestville and other towns along the river had flooding and more rain was forecast starting next week from a new storm.

More than 20 of California's 58 counties are now out of drought, stretching from the San Francisco Bay region and wine-growing Napa and Sonoma counties up the northern most areas such as Shasta and Modoc.

Drought conditions didn't just improve in California. Gains were made in parts of Nevada, Utah, Oregon, Idaho, Montana, Wyoming and Colorado.

The U.S. Drought Monitor is a weekly report of drought conditions produced by several agencies, including the National Drought Mitigation Center at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and NOAA.