Recent rains help upgrade Sonoma County's drought status

  • Vineyard worker Alfredo Calderon ties down the grape vines at Marimar Estate winery on Monday, March 3, 2014 in Sebastopol, California. (BETH SCHLANKER/ The Press Democrat)

Just in time for St. Patrick's Day, recent rains have turned the hills around Sonoma County a beautiful Kelly green reminiscent of the Irish countryside.

But while the much needed precipitation — more than 10 inches in places since Feb. 1 — has helped farmers and ranchers, water managers caution that the drought is not over.

"The drought is still on," said Brad Sherwood, spokesman for the Sonoma County Water Agency. "When you look at storage levels in our reservoirs, we're still well below average."

Sherwood said both March and April would have to come in well ahead of averages for storage levels to recover.

Five weeks ago, after the driest year followed by the driest January on record, ranchers were trucking in water to soak pastures that were brown and withered.

February brought some relief. It rained 9.33 inches in Santa Rosa during the month, the 13th-wettest February on record. Average rainfall for the month is 6 inches.

With the recent rains, including more than 2 inches in Santa Rosa and upward of 8 inches in the wettest parts of the coastal hills in the past week alone, fields are full of green grass for livestock.

"Grass is growing. There's some pasture out there for cattle and sheep," said Tim Tesconi, executive director of the Sonoma County Farm Bureau. "These rains are coming just at the right time."

The drought status in much of the county, as well as parts of Lake and Mendocino counties, was upgraded from "extreme" to just "severe," according to the U.S. Drought Monitor.

The county's reservoirs have risen recently, Sherwood said. Lake Mendocino, which he said dipped as low as 35 percent capacity this winter, is now around 50 percent. Lake Sonoma, which he said fell to about 65 percent capacity, is now above 70 percent. Capacity could improve into the weekend as the rain that fell in recent days makes its way into reservoirs.

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