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What a difference months of rain make
Drought comparison
What a difference a few months make. The U.S. Drought Map on Oct. 4 (left) showed dire conditions in California. But things look drastically different now. The map at right shows drought conditions as of March 14.

Visit the U.S. Drought Monitor website and peruse a map of California from Oct. 4, 2022 — the start of the current water year — and you’ll see it colored mostly in orange, red and dark red, the three colors that indicate the greatest drought severity.

Pull up the most recent map, released to the public Thursday, and you’ll see California bathed mostly in white, the color that indicates no drought conditions, and yellow, the color that indicates dry (not drought) conditions.

It’s an amazing comeback story for a region that just six months ago was the driest in the nation.

The U.S. Drought Monitor uses a seven-color grading system: white indicates no drought conditions, yellow (D0) indicates abnormally dry conditions, beige (D1) represents moderate drought conditions, orange (D2) signifies severe drought, red (D3) is extreme drought, dark red (D4) equates to exceptional drought, and gray indicates no data is available.

Back in October, the majority of Stanislaus and Merced counties were classified as D4 … as were seven other counties in the fertile southern San Joaquin Valley.

Today, according to the website, Stanislaus and Merced counties are shown experiencing no drought conditions, as are six of those other seven counties. Only southernmost Kern County has a sliver of yellow and beige remaining on the current map.

In fact, 27 of California’s 58 counties are classified as having no drought condition, while another seven counties have tiny pockets of yellow that keep them from making the same claim.

“The speed with which we saw conditions improve across the state is pretty impressive,” said Curtis Riganti, a climatologist for the National Drought Mitigation Center at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln. “We can compare this to 2017 for seeing quick improvements, but the number of atmospheric-river events in California this winter has been remarkable.”

Since December, no less than 12 powerful storms have hit California.

Not only have the atmospheric rivers brought rainfall that helped fill the state’s reservoirs, it has dumped near-record levels of snow in the Sierra Nevada.

UC Berkeley’s Central Sierra Snow Lab in Soda Springs — near Donner Pass — has recorded 692.13 inches of snow to date, a week shy of the halfway point in the water year. The record is 812 inches, recorded during the 1951-52 water year.

To put this into context, 692 inches is nearly 58 feet of snow — enough to bury a five-story building.

Gov. Gavin Newsom ended some of the state’s water restrictions on Friday, but would not declare the drought over.

“None of us could have imagined ... a few months ago that we’d be where we are today,” Newsom said Friday from a farm northwest of Sacramento that has flooded some of its fields with excess water so it will seep underground and refill groundwater basins. “Are we out of the drought? Mostly — but not completely.”

Newsom could ease some restrictions in part because California’s reservoirs are now so full that cities will get more than double the amount of drinking water this year compared to a previous allocation announced last month. Now, water districts that serve 27 million people will get at least 75 percent of the water they requested from state supplies. Last year, they only got five percent as California endured three of the driest years ever since modern record keeping began in 1896.

While all this is good news for the region’s groundwater stores, Stanislaus State and MJC earth sciences professor Ryan Hollister points out that the Valley’s aquifers still need attention.

“What we’ve got to overcome is years of overdrafting our aquifers,” said Hollister. “Even though surface water looks exceptionally great right now, we have a long way to go with groundwater management throughout the state.”

An aquifer is an underground layer of water-bearing rock or rock fractures or unconsolidated material, and it’s how the city of Ceres gets its drinking water. One might think that with all the rain the state has experienced this winter, the aquifers would be as well off as the region’s rivers and reservoirs. That’s not necessarily the case, something to which Rick Canepa, co-owner of Canepa and Sons Water Well Services, can attest.

“We’re still getting calls regarding wells going dry,” said Canepa, who’s been a well driller for more nearly 45 years. “We just recently deepened four or five wells up in the Sonora area. One guy in Escalon had no water in his well. We’re still getting calls.”

Canepa continued.

“You know, my dad could barely read and write, but he was a genius when it came to water. He always told me that it takes seven good winters to recoup from one drought.”

According to Turlock Irrigation District’s Brandon McMillan, the Turlock and Modesto sub-basins are in better shape than most, since they’ve had access to reliable surface water since the inception of their respective irrigation districts.

“Over the last 25 years, on average, TID has been a 100,000-acre-feet recharger of the aquifer,” said McMillan, a communications specialist for the district. “And, in years like this, our board has decided to sell surface water to growers outside of our area to help them irrigate with surface rather than groundwater, which helps replenish aquifers.”