State Loosens Water Restrictions, But California Drought Not Over Yet

A wet winter has many people in the state talking about a surge in water and a stop-gap to a decades-long drought.

But did the El Niño season deliver enough water to end the drought?

It wasn’t the "godzilla" El Niño forecasters initially predicted, says Jay Lund, a world renowned water resource expert and director of the Center for Watershed Sciences at UC Davis.

"The El Niño was touted as bringing us a lot more water than it actually brought this year," he said.

In fact, rainfall in Northern California was decidedly average this year, Lund says.

However, the El Niño was atypical in other ways, he added.

"If you look at it statistically, El Niños are not necessarily correlated with a lot of water in Northern California, but they usually are correlated with more water in Southern California," Lund says.

This year, the El Niño had the opposite impact. Northern California fared much better, while Southern and Central California saw notably little rainfall and still remain in "extreme" or "exceptional" drought, according to the state’s most recent drought map.

Overall, drought conditions have improved in California.

Most of the state’s major reservoirs are in Northern California, where average rainfall has some of those reservoirs, Shasta and Oroville for example, filled to the brim.

Groundwater supplies will take longer to rebuild, but the replenished reservoirs will help with that.

"They kind of go together," Lund said. "The main way we recharge aquifers in the Central Valley is with irrigating crops with surface water."

There will be more surface water to go around this year.

Even though California’s Water Resources Control Board recently lifted its water use restrictions, giving jurisdiction to local agencies, many water districts in the Bay Area have chosen not to change the rules regarding calls for conservation.

The San Francisco Public Utilities Commission says customers will still be asked for a voluntary 10 percent cut, and restaurants in the city will still serve water by request only.

The Santa Clara Valley Water District hasn’t budged yet, either. The district mandates a 30 percent reduction for now, but the board will meet again in two weeks to discuss.

The East Bay Municipal Utility District has made some changes. Its 1.4 million customers no longer need to meet a 20 percent conservation target or pay fines for overuse.

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