SACRAMENTO — After being soaked by an onslaught of storms that have flooded towns, saturated fields and heaped the Sierra Nevada with a near-record snowpack, Californians are getting relief from a host of drought restrictions that were imposed last year during a historic dry spell.
“We’ve been waiting for this moment for some time,” Gov. Gavin Newsom said, stepping out between atmospheric rivers to lift all but about 33 of the more than 80 emergency drought orders he issued since last spring.
But that doesn’t mean California can stop thinking about conservation.
“It would be nice to have a governor say the drought is over,” he said, but climate change has complicated the question. “Are we out of a drought? Mostly but not completely.”
The past three years have been the driest in recorded history in California. Last spring, state water officials reported that California’s largest reservoirs were at half of their historical averages and that the snowpack was at just 14 percent of average. According to the U.S. Drought Monitor, the government’s official drought-tracking service, more than 90 percent of the state was in severe or extreme drought.
Since then, however, a dozen powerful atmospheric rivers have swept through California, and Los Angeles has recorded more than two feet of rain, about 200 percent of normal since the current season began in October. Similar levels of rain have fallen in San Francisco, Sacramento, Fresno and other cities.
On Thursday, the Drought Monitor reported that only about a third of the state was experiencing any drought, and that only about 8.5 percent was in severe or worse drought. Major reservoirs are so full that water is being released from some of them to make way for the inevitable thaw of a colossal snowpack that is nearing triple the average size for this time of year, said Mike Anderson, the state climatologist.
Although the storms have been destructive for parts of the state, the governor credited the wet winter with easing the painful drought. Also key, he said, were conservation measures that the state has taken over the past few years to boost water storage, increase supplies and upgrade flood-control infrastructure.
As the drought worsened, Newsom has appealed to residents to voluntarily cut 15 percent of their water usage. The state also slashed its deliveries to local and regional water agencies via the State Water Project. The project, a network of reservoirs, dams and waterways, is a major component of California’s sprawling water system and serves some 27 million residents and agricultural users throughout the state.
As recently as December, water officials warned agencies to brace for just 5 percent of the water supplies they had requested, a cut that stunned farmers and ranchers and heightened political tensions in rural California. A month later, officials raised that to 30 percent as winter storms drenched the state.
On Friday, Wade Crowfoot, the state’s secretary of natural resources, said that the winter had been so wet that agencies would get 75 percent of their requested allotments.
Newsom also ended a requirement that water agencies impose measures intended to cut 20 percent of consumption. Anticipating the change, the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California had already lifted mandatory restrictions for some seven million people, which could allow some residents to water their yards more than twice a week.
But the state’s groundwater supplies remain significantly depleted, and the governor said that emergency measures to recharge aquifers and capture storm water would remain in place. Newsom also kept bans on “wasteful” water uses, such as watering lawns outside businesses if their purpose is only decorative.
Local water officials said the decision was both welcomed and expected, but unlikely to significantly affect their long-term emphasis on conservation. If they haven’t already, they will soon decide how many restrictions to roll back.
“This is great news,” said Andrea Pook, a spokeswoman for the East Bay Municipal Utility District, which provides drinking water for some 1.4 million people in the Bay Area. “Does it mean conservation is over? No.”
She said the change would allow the district to end a penalty on excessive water use and shift from mandatory to voluntary conservation. But water conservation has also become a habit for many customers, she said, adding that the district’s customers had conserved more than 30,000 acre feet of water during the drought restrictions, enough to supply water for a year to 60,000 households.
Shawn Hubler is a California correspondent based in Sacramento.
The rest of the news
Food: Why home cooks are shopping at restaurant supply stores.
Salmon ban: Ocean salmon fishing season is set to be prohibited this year off California and much of Oregon, after salmon returned to California’s rivers in near record-low numbers in 2022, The Associated Press reports.
Dianne Feinstein’s Senate seat: Representative Ro Khanna of California said on Sunday that he would not run to succeed Feinstein, who is retiring at the end of her term. Three representatives — Katie Porter, Adam Schiff and Barbara Lee — are already running.
Strike deal: The union representing education workers reached a tentative deal with the Los Angeles Unified School District on Friday, after a three-day strike that canceled classes for 422,000 students last week.
Street vendors: A law that makes it easier to qualify for public health permits is bringing new freedom to Los Angeles’s estimated 10,000 street vendors, who have faced discrimination and harassment by the police, The Washington Post reports.
Aqueduct: Record storms earlier this month caused the walls of the Los Angeles Aqueduct to crumble. It was the first time that the aqueduct had been breached by extreme weather, The Los Angeles Times reports.
Flooding problems: Sheriff John Zanoni of Fresno County says officials are preparing for the potential to be dealing with heavy river flows and possible flooding into summer, The Fresno Bee reports.
Gray wolves: Two members of the state’s gray wolf population were located in Siskiyou County and given tracking collars, bolstering state conservation efforts, The Los Angeles Times reports.
Stanford controversy: Chaos ensued when a federal judge spoke at Stanford University this month.
What we’re eating
Asparagus frittata with burrata and herb pesto.
Where we’re traveling
Today’s tip comes from Wendy Taylor, who lives in San Francisco:
“One of the amazing things about California is that there are fun places everywhere. We live in S.F. but a trip down to the wharf and a kayak along the Embarcadero feels like visiting a whole new world. You can rent a kayak and paddle from the ballpark to the Ferry Building and get a whole new view of the city. There’s the heart-pounding hard paddle under the Bay Bridge (seals! birds! waves!) or you can take a leisurely float by the houseboats of Mission Creek (don’t forget to duck under the bridge). Even if you’ve lived here for years, it’s a new view of the city that’s always surprising. And of course, when you are done, you can hop over to the Ferry Building for an awesome lunch: Tacos at Cholita Linda or oysters and a po’ boy at Hog Island are faves.”
Tell us about your favorite places to visit in California. Email your suggestions to [email protected]. We’ll be sharing more in upcoming editions of the newsletter.
And before you go, some good news
In August, Los Angeles’s only Indigenous charter school bought a swath of undeveloped land near Downtown Los Angeles and returned it to the Gabrielino-Shoshone Tribal Nation of Southern California, the area’s original inhabitants.
The school — Anahuacalmecac International University Preparatory of North America — intends to act as a steward for the land and build a cultural center there, The Los Angeles Times reports.
“It’s mind-blowing” to have a dedicated space for the Indigenous ways and education, said Jamie Rocha, a member of the tribe, which has long struggled to find a place to practice its ceremonies in congested Los Angeles County.
Having such a space “always seemed kind of impossible,” Rocha said, “because you know, our territory is prime real estate.”
Thanks for reading. We’ll be back tomorrow.
P.S. Here’s today’s Mini Crossword.
Soumya Karlamangla, Briana Scalia and Maia Coleman contributed to California Today. You can reach the team at [email protected].
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