Del­uge ends drought across 42% of Cal­i­for­nia

Honolulu Star-Advertiser - - NATION - By Ellen Knick­meyer

SAN FRAN­CISCO >> More than 40 per­cent of Cal­i­for­nia is out of drought, fed­eral drought-watch­ers said Thurs­day at the tail end of pow­er­ful storms that sent thou­sands of peo­ple fleeing from flood­ing rivers in the north, un­leashed bur­bling wa­ter­falls in south­ern deserts and dou­bled the vi­tal snow­pack in the Sierra Ne­vada in lit­tle more than a week.

Declar­ing Cal­i­for­nia as a whole to be past its of­fi­cial three-year drought emer­gency will be up to Gov. Jerry Brown, who will prob­a­bly wait un­til the end of the win­ter rain and snow sea­son to make that de­ci­sion. But for peo­ple in north­ern cities such as Sacra­mento, where state work­ers opened flood­gates to ease pres­sure on lev­ees for the first time in a dozen years, re­leas­ing a 2-mile-wide tor­rent of ex­cess wa­ter from the surg­ing Sacra­mento River, the call on declar­ing the dry spell over in North­ern Cal­i­for­nia looked much clearer.

“It’s hard to say we have a drought here right now,” said Jay Lund, di­rec­tor of the Cen­ter for Wa­ter­shed Sciences at the Uni­ver­sity of Cal­i­for­nia, Davis.

Lund spoke as he re­turned from tak­ing stu­dents to see the wrenched-open, cen­tury-old flood­gates in Sacra­mento, which got its heav­i­est rain in 20 years this week.

The weekly drought re­port by fed­eral and aca­demic wa­ter ex­perts showed 42 per­cent of the state had emerged from drought. This time last year, only 3 per­cent of Cal­i­for­nia was out of drought.

South­ern Cal­i­for­nia, which is also re­ceiv­ing wel­come rain from the storms, re­mains in drought but ex­pe­ri­enced a dra­matic re­duc­tion in sever­ity.

Just 2 per­cent of the en­tire state, a swath be­tween Los An­ge­les and Santa Bar­bara, re­mains in the sharpest cat­e­gory of drought, which in­cludes dry­ing wells, reser­voirs and streams and wide­spread crop losses. Forty-three per­cent of the state was in that direst cat­e­gory this time a year ago.

The Cachuma reser­voir near still-arid Santa Bar­bara was at just 8 per­cent of ca­pac­ity, even as au­thor­i­ties at North­ern Cal­i­for­nia’s Shasta Dam opened spill­ways for the first time in six years to make room for more wa­ter to come.

Like many peo­ple in North­ern Cal­i­for­nia, win­ery tast­ing-room su­per­vi­sor Nate Hayes went out to marvel when this week’s heavy rain started, and en­joyed tak­ing his ca­noe down the flooded streets of his town of Rohn­ert Park.

By Thurs­day, Hayes and oth­ers were tired of the rock­slides and mud­slides com­pli­cat­ing com­mutes and the round-the-clock down­pours keep­ing every­one in­side. “We’re all re­ally ex­cited for the rain,” Hayes said. “But at the same time we kind of want it to be over.” Fore­cast­ers said the heav­i­est of storms fueled by an “at­mo­spheric river” weather phe­nom­e­non had passed af­ter de­liv­er­ing the big­gest down­pours in a decade. “Ev­ery­thing is on the way down,” said Steve An­der­son, a me­te­o­rol­o­gist at the Na­tional Weather Ser­vice of­fice in Mon­terey.

A rare Sierra bliz­zard at the start of the week brought the moun­tains their heav­i­est snow­fall in six years. Runoff from the moun­tains pro­vides Cal­i­for­ni­ans with much of their year-round wa­ter sup­ply. Sta­tions up and down the moun­tain chain were re­port­ing twice the amount of nor­mal rain and snow for this time of year. Over­all, reser­voirs were brim­ming above av­er­age for the first time in six years. “It’s been so wet in some places this win­ter, we would do pretty well even if it ta­pered off right now,” said Daniel Swain, a fel­low at the Uni­ver­sity of Cal­i­for­nia, Los An­ge­les, whose weather blog has been a closely watched chronicle of the drought.

Wa­ter ex­perts look at fac­tors in­clud­ing soil mois­ture, stream lev­els and snow­pack in de­ter­min­ing drought, said Clau­dia Faunt, a San Diegob­ased hy­drol­o­gist with the U.S. Ge­o­log­i­cal Sur­vey.

At the peak of the drought in 2014 and 2015, ur­ban Cal­i­for­ni­ans were un­der a manda­tory 25 per­cent wa­ter con­ser­va­tion or­der from Brown. Threat­ened na­tive species suf­fered as wa­ter­ways shriv­eled. More than 100 mil­lion trees in the Sierra Ne­vada died.


At top, Frank Gehrke, chief of the Cal­i­for­nia Co­op­er­a­tive Snow Sur­veys Pro­gram for the De­part­ment of Wa­ter Re­sources, plunged a sur­vey tube into the snow at Phillips Sta­tion near Echo Sum­mit, Calif., on Jan. 3 for the first snow sur­vey of the sea­son. Above, Gerhke walked with Gov. Jerry Brown in the same area, which is usu­ally cov­ered in a few inches of snow, in April 2015.

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