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Drought recedes as North Coast rivers, reservoirs swell from storms

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A historic drought that parched the landscape and turned water conservation into a civic duty already seemed a distant memory on the North Coast when a series of powerful storms slammed into California over the weekend, dumping enough moisture to swamp lake- and streamside buildings that stood high and dry at the peak of the drought.

With local reservoirs now filled past capacity for this time of year and the Russian River still swollen with runoff, the U.S. Drought Monitor said Thursday that more than 41 percent of California — including the whole northern part of the state — is officially drought-free, a marked and gratifying shift from the weeks and months leading up to the new year, when even seasonally wet winter weather was not yet enough to declare the drought over.

Sonoma County Water Agency spokesman Brad Sherwood said Thursday that’s all changed.

“We always said that if we got above-average rainfall in consecutive years that we’d be sitting good,” Sherwood said, “and this series of storms definitely put the drought out, without a doubt.”

Only a year ago, drought conditions prevailed over 97 percent of the state, including 42 percent that was deemed to be in “exceptional drought,” the worst category, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor, a weekly map and report produced by a consortium of federal government experts and academics.

Residents of Sonoma County and their neighbors on the North Coast need only step outside to witness for themselves the region’s drastic change in fortunes, a result of drenching storms that flooded low-lying land and swelled streams until they spilled their banks, submerging vineyards, closing roads and engulfing buildings.

The 30 inches of rainfall Santa Rosa has received so far since October is 175 percent of the 30-year average for this time of year, National Weather Service meteorologist Steve Anderson said.

Similarly, this week’s storms and copious snowfall in the Sierra Nevada have brightened the water outlook across much of the state.

A test of snow moisture in the Sierra Nevada on Tuesday came back at 135 percent of normal for that date, the Drought Monitor said.

It’s a stark contrast with past winters during the drought, and an obvious improvement since mid-December, when the North Coast was still almost entirely in drought, even after rainfall totals in Santa Rosa last winter that reached 89 percent of the 30-year average.

After a wet start to this rainfall year, Marin County, most of Sonoma County and about half of Mendocino County were cleared of drought status by Dec. 20.

Today, the drought remains acute in California’s southern Central Valley and south coast, with the most severe conditions in Santa Barbara, Ventura and Los Angeles counties. More than 26 million people live in areas of the state still in drought, the U.S. Drought Monitor said.

Reservoirs in those areas are meager puddles compared to the brimful pools now stretching along the coast from Santa Cruz to the Oregon border.

Supplies in Lake Sonoma and Lake Mendocino, which together serve more than 600,000 North Bay residents, have been pushed well above winter storage levels, prompting flood releases by dam operators that began Thursday. The releases are in part to make room for another system of wet storms, known as an atmospheric river, forecast to hit the region early next week.

With Lake Mendocino at 149 percent of its target capacity for this time of year and Lake Sonoma at 127 percent, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers waited just long enough for the Russian River to recede before opening the gates at Coyote Dam and releasing extra water from Lake Mendocino late Thursday morning. Releases from Lake Sonoma were expected to begin at midnight.

It’s a stunning change from two years ago, when officials and residents fought to preserve every drop of winter and spring runoff behind the dams.

At the peak of the drought in 2014 and 2015, urban Californians were under a mandatory 25 percent water conservation order issued by Gov. Jerry Brown to make supplies last.

Imperiled native fish species, including salmon, suffered as waterways shriveled. More than 100 million trees in the Sierra Nevada died, state foresters said.

California will remain in a drought emergency until Brown lifts or eases the declaration he issued in January 2014.

State officials said this week that Brown will likely wait until the end of California’s winter snow and rain season to make a decision on revising the drought declaration.

Experts advised against complacency given the complexity of both natural and manmade water systems, shifting weather patterns tied to climate change and demand on supplies that vary year to year.

The state’s underground aquifers in many places are badly depleted after years of overpumping that increased during the drought. Those supplies, built up over centuries and longer, are being used faster than they can be replenished, scientists say.

“Certainly in Northern California, we’re in better shape than Southern California,” said Peter Gleick, chief scientist with the Oakland-based Pacific Institute and a well-known water authority. “But it’s too soon to go back to our old water-wasting ways — if we ever should.”

Gleick said cities and farmers have been promised access to more water than is realistic, so that notions of drought become relative and supplies too unpredictable.

The rainfall season could just as easily continue on a wet course as suddenly turn dry, he said.

Such was the case four years ago, when the long dry spell that was 2013 began, diminishing supplies in Lake Mendocino, where winter runoff had been released, reducing the reservoir’s stored water by about a quarter in anticipation of winter storms that never arrived.

Army Corps officials said discharges now underway are tied more closely to the near-term forecast, including a storm expected late Tuesday that is anticipated to bring heavy rainfall and renewed flooding concerns.

Mike Dillabough, operations chief for the Army Corps’ San Francisco district, said up to 2,500 cubic feet per second, or three times the volume from last week, would be released from Lake Mendocino. Up to 3,000 cfs — nearly 30 times the volume from last week — could be spilled from Lake Sonoma, with releases to begin tapering off Sunday or Monday.

The Associated Press contributed to this report. You can reach Staff Writer Mary Callahan at 707-521-5249 or mary.callahan@pressdemocrat.com.

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