Weather and Natural Disasters

The worst of the drought is over for California, but water restrictions continue

A vehicle is driven along a flooded street in Monterey Park, California on January 23, 2017 following another night of rain.
Frederic J. Brown | AFP | Getty Images

It's official: The deluge of rain that soaked California in recent weeks has washed away the worst instances of the drought in the state, according to an analysis released Thursday.

While none of the state remains in the worst category known as "exceptional," the drought continues in the south and central portions of the state, the U.S. Drought Monitor said.

However, there was a major improvement shown in just the last week due to a series of tropical storms that produced substantial precipitation statewide. Yet the San Francisco Bay region and most northern counties in the state are now considered drought free, according to the monitor.

"The two big holdouts would be groundwater recovery and in Southern California reservoir recovery," said U.S. Department of Agriculture meteorologist Brad Rippey. "As you move to the north it's becoming more and more obvious that the drought has been eradicated."

Overall, the monitor morning showed 51 percent of California remains in some form of drought, but that's down from just over 57 percent last week and compares with 81 percent three months ago.

Perhaps the most dramatic change in the latest monitor is in the "extreme drought" category where coverage area went from 24 percent statewide last week to just 2 percent this week. The area with "exceptional drought" conditions stood at 21 percent three months and fell to 2 percent last week but as of Thursday is zero.

While there's rejoicing with January's rainfall, the state's water agency has no plans to roll back on conservation efforts.

"It makes the most sense to continue steady as she goes," California Water Resources Control Board Chair Felicia Marcus told the Associated Press in an interview this week.

A map by the US Drought Monitor showing California drought conditions from Oct. 26, 2016 to Jan. 25, 2017.
US Drought Monitor

The state's drought means local water agencies must monitor and enforce conservation efforts. This has led to restrictions in the number of days residents can water lawns as well as other rules.

The areas of California that still remain in extreme drought conditions are Santa Barbara and Ventura counties as well as portions of Los Angeles and Kern counties.

One of the indicators of drought conditions down south is Santa Barbara County's Lake Cachuma reservoir, where it is filled around 13 percent of its historical average. Over the decades, the reservoir has served as a major source of water for Santa Barbara and nearby communities.

A desalination water plant in Santa Barbara is scheduled to go back online in March, which will turn the salty ocean water into drinking water for residents.

Also, in terms of groundwater, the state's central and southern regions are also still catching up after drought conditions since 2011. The monitor report said groundwater levels to date "have not responded as one might expect, and remain critically low."

Indeed, Rippey said the recovery in the groundwater is "still a little bit of a question mark" but could end up looking better by spring. "Just depends on the local nature of the aquifers and how quickly they respond to this precipitation," he said.

Meantime, the snow pack in Sierra Nevada mountain range is showing improvement with the recent tropical storms.

The first official snow pack measurement of the year was held Jan. 3 and showed just 53 percent of the average for that time of year, according to the California Department of Water Resources. But the state's next official snowpack measurement set for Feb. 2 is likely to show big gains.

Statewide, the average snowpack (essentially water in storage) is almost twice the normal level for late January, according to the weekly monitor. That is significant since the snowpack supplies about 30 percent of California's water particularly in the spring and summer months.