After a Winter of Powerful Storms and Flooding, Governor Lifts Drought Emergency for Most of California

At this time last year, more than 90 percent of California was in drought

California is lifting its drought emergency for most of the state after a winter of record rain and snowfall that followed a five-year dry spell.

Gov. Jerry Brown's office announced Friday that his executive order will lift the drought emergency in California, except for Fresno, Kings, Tulare and Tuolumne counties. Those counties still face groundwater supply shortages.

"This drought emergency is over, but the next drought could be around the corner," Gov. Brown said. "Conservation must remain a way of life."

Brown's office also said new legislation will create long-term conservation measures as the state with a history of dry spells anticipates future droughts.

About 8 percent of California is still under some type of drought, according to the most recent U.S. Drought Monitor report. At this time last year, more than 90 percent of California fell into at least one of the weekly report's four drought categories. 

More than 31 percent of California was in the most severe category -- exceptional drought -- in April 2016. That figure dwindled to 18 percent during the height of winter's storms before falling away later in the season.

The only parts of California that remain in moderate drought are northern Los Angeles, Ventura, Santa Barbara and Orange counties. A sliver of extreme southeastern Imperial County remains under severe drought.

The announcement ends the 2014 emergency declaration during California's driest four-year period on record. It led to the first conservation rules for the nation's most populated and agriculturally productive state, focused on turning off sprinklers and ripping out thirsty lawns.

Monster storms this winter doused the Sierra Nevada Mountains with a record snowpack, a key California water source, and boosted reservoirs to normal levels. Melting water runs off the mountain and into a system of aqueducts and reservoirs, providing water for about 23 million Californians.

Water conservation will become a way of life in the nation's most populated state, Felicia Marcus, chairwoman of the State Water Resources Control Board, who led conservation planning. Officials already have started charting long-term rules to make California more resilient as climate change makes weather patterns more severe.

"There's a greater appreciation of just how precious water is," she said. "We've got to plan for longer droughts."

Cities and water districts throughout the state will be required to continue reporting their water use each month, said the governor order, which also bans wasteful practices. New rules are expected to permanently ban wasteful practices, such as hosing off sidewalks and watering landscapes in the days after it rains.

Susan Atkins of the charity Self-Help Enterprises said the drought is not over for more than 900 families who have large water tanks in their yards because their wells dried up during the years long drought.

Most of them are in Tulare County, a farming powerhouse in central California's San Joaquin Valley. Atkins said she still receives calls from people whose wells are running dry and need a tank and bottled water.

"In no way is it over," she said of the drought. "We will run out of money before we run out of people that need help."

As for the robust snowpack, it might grow this weekend when an unusually strong spring storm sweeps through California. Electronic monitors last week showed the mountain snowpack was at 164 percent of normal.

It was the most dense springtime snowpack since 2011, a year followed by five years of drought. 

Record-breaking rain in recent months has put a major dent in the drought but also led rivers and creeks to break their banks and wreaked havoc on the state's infrastructure. In February, drought busting storms led to an emergency evacuation of thousands of people downstream from Oroville Dam, where the main spillway broke apart and an emergency spillway eroded. In San Jose, thousands of residents were evacuated a flooded streets filled with mud and debris.

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