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California inching its way out of punishing drought, but regulators still cautious

A sign is posted near an almond farm in Turlock, California.
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A sign is posted near an almond farm in Turlock, California.

California's long and punishing drought continues to recede as more storms hit the state, according to new data released Thursday.

An update to the U.S. Drought Monitor shows that 44 percent of the state is in severe drought or worse, down from 49 percent a week ago. Almost 65 percent of the state is still abnormally dry, and drought relief is heavy concentrated in the northern regions of the state.

More than 26 million Californians are still living in drought-stricken areas, according to the report.

The first of three expected storms has already hit the West Coast Thursday morning, causing more flooding, landslides and downed trees. While the rains have brought much needed relief, they have wreaked havoc on roads and property, especially in northern counties.

The National Weather Service said the storms will bring much-needed rain to central and southern California.

The part of the state still at the most severe level of drought is in southwestern California, starting north of Los Angeles and running along the coast through Ventura County into Santa Barbara County and the southernmost region of Kern County, further inland.

In spite of the rain, the State Water Resources Control Board is recommending that the state government keep some recent water conservation rules in place beyond their planned expiration date at the end of January. Readopting them would extend the rules into October.

"Rains in parts of California this water year are encouraging so far and above normal for this date," the board noted in a recent request for public comment on the rules. "In some regions, however, the drought continues to present challenges including water shortages, over-drafted groundwater basins and land subsidence, dying trees and increased wildfire activity, diminished water for agricultural production, degraded habitat for many fish and wildlife species, and an increased threat of saltwater intrusion."