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As California confronts its fourth year of drought and the window for any significant spring rainfall closes, the North Coast has more water in storage than a year ago and is in better position than much of the state to meet its supply needs during the traditionally warm, dry months ahead.

Having endured a near-rainless January and a fourth consecutive winter with below-normal rainfall, local residents can thank several drenching days in December and February for bringing season-to-date rainfall to nearly 24 inches — the most in four years and just 8 inches shy of average for this date.

The total was enough to officially downgrade the drought in most of Sonoma County and all of Mendocino County from “extreme” to “severe,” according to the U.S. Drought Monitor federal index and map program. With the Sierra Nevada snowpack at a record low, two-thirds of the state remains in a state of “extreme” or “exceptional” drought.

That’s not to say, however, that the crisis is over on the North Coast, experts said. The strain on groundwater — the other major local source aside from reservoirs — has managers especially concerned. Pumping, by farmers especially, has outpaced groundwater replenishment from rainfall across much of the state. Sonoma County’s aquifers, while not as heavily tapped as those in the Central Valley, for example, are still under significant pressure. Conservation will continue to be key, water managers said.

“We’re not out of this thing by any stretch of the imagination, that’s for sure,” said Jay Jasperse, chief engineer and director of groundwater management for the Sonoma County Water Agency, wholesale supplier to more than 600,000 people in Sonoma and Marin counties.

The region’s main reservoir, Lake Sonoma, fed by a tributary to the Russian River, has more than 216,000 acre feet of water in storage, or about 88 percent of its water supply capacity. Last year at this time, the reservoir was at 72 percent of its capacity, according to the state Department of Water Resources.

To the north, at smaller Lake Mendocino, storage is nearly 65,000 acre feet, or 79 percent of water supply capacity. Last year at this time, it was at roughly 47 percent, according to state records.

The improved storage outlook is expected to provide some cushion — for drinking water, farming and recreational uses — but it’s important to remember that the benchmark this spring follows two exceptionally dry years, water officials said.

“It’s better than last year, but last year was very, very bad,” Jasperse said.

“We basically bought ourselves six months of breathing room,” Don McEnhill, director of the group Russian Riverkeeper, said of the few good winter storms — what meteorologists now call “atmospheric river events.”

“We’ll probably get through the summer,” said McEnhill, a veteran waterman who spends many hours paddling boats on the Russian River.

Emily Chase, office manager at SOAR Inflatables/Russian River adventures in Healdsburg, said even with less rain last year, her company ran trips through mid-November, the latest ever.

With more rain this year, “We’ll see what happens, but we’ll be running trips all season for sure,” she said.

Still, McEnhill and others warned against the kind of complacency evident in urban consumption figures released March 3, which demonstrated a steep decline in statewide conservation efforts once the December rains appeared and January rains did not.

While some cities, including Santa Rosa, Rohnert Park and the Mendocino County community of Redwood Valley, continued to conserve — using at least 20 percent less water than they did in the previous January, and meeting a reduction goal issued last summer by Gov. Jerry Brown — many other communities on the North Coast and statewide saw their consumption shoot up. The trend resulted in a shift from December, when water consumption statewide fell by 22 percent from December 2013, to a year-over-year January savings of just 8.8 percent, according to the state Water Resources Control Board. (The numbers do not include the smallest utilities, of 3,000 customers or less, which are not required to report usage.)

Consumers jumped the gun after the intense December storm, and then the rain stopped until mid-February, Jasperse said. “It should be a caution event to everybody — that switch turns off, and that we can’t predict that with any great level of foresight.”

Even now, the Water Agency and its municipal contractors are formulating new outdoor irrigation regulations that would restrict consumers to watering only on specific days of the week, in keeping with expanded statewide drought emergency rules adopted by the Water Resources Control Board earlier this month.

Among other measures to comply with state mandates, local cities and water districts already limit outdoor watering to night-time hours only, to limit evaporation.

Felicia Marcus, chairwoman of the state water board, said California residents also can expect “more significant” regulations to be developed in the months ahead to help the state prepare for the possibility of continuing drought.

In an interview last week, she said lessons from Australia, which recently emerged from a 13-year drought, show that it might be years before normal rainfall returns.

“I just think that people have to look at their water use assuming it’s not going to rain in the foreseeable future, and they need to look at what they’re using water for today as if they won’t have it tomorrow — either for fish, if that’s what motivates them, or for drinking water,” Marcus said.

Ranchers, grape growers and others who divert water from the Russian River have been on notice since January that those with junior water rights could face curtailments again this year, forbidding those with certain kinds of permits from diverting river water or pumping from wells connected to river flows. Last year, 652 permit holders north of Healdsburg were forced to stop withdrawing water for six months, unless they could claim rights under a different permit.

Katherine Mrowka, enforcement manager for the state Division of Water Rights, said Russian River diverters should not assume they will be curtailed this year because the watershed is in better condition than it was last year.

But she said it’s hard to predict: Curtailment orders are determined by ongoing evaluations of stream-flow conditions and water demand, so conditions could warrant curtailments at any time, she said.

Though it’s past time for the kind of “Miracle March” that in the past has rescued the region from drought, there’s still hope for rain this spring.

Santa Rosa has received an average 3.74 inches of rain between April 1 and June 30 over the past 30 years — or about 10 percent of the normal amount for the season, National Weather Service meteorologists said.

But the likelihood of such weather diminishes with each passing day, and there is no precipitation predicted in the foreseeable future.

That’s bad news for livestock ranchers like Joe Pozzi of Valley Ford who need ample spring rain to produce the grass that permits them to bring their sheep and cattle up to weight. The cost of hauling in hay, which is increasingly scarce and expensive due to drought, means some ranchers may end up selling off animals, he said.

Even though the reservoir levels were lower last year, at least there was some March rain to green up the pastures, said John Azevedo, president of the Sonoma County Farm Bureau.

Even a little rain does “a lot for soil moisture — just kind of maintenance, at the surface level, and, again, for pasture and grass growth, those are really good storms,” he said.

But local agricultural interests, overall, are in better stead than they were last year, he said.

“Right now, we are in much better shape, I think, than most of the state, at least in the short term,” Azevedo said. “That’s the good news, with the reservoir levels and the rain that we have had. Thank goodness we’re not dependent on a snowpack, because there isn’t any anywhere.”

You can reach Staff Writer Mary Callahan at 521-5249 or mary.callahan@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @MaryCallahanB.

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