An epic month of rain has brought rising reservoir levels, floods and hope to the drought-stricken Central Coast.
After five years of dry conditions, this January was the rainiest month in two decades — 11.5 inches of precipitation has fallen in San Luis Obispo at Cal Poly, compared with 13.31 inches in 1995, PG&E meteorologist John Lindsey said. That total also crushes the January average of 4.96 inches, according to National Weather Service data.
Most areas throughout San Luis Obispo County have already exceeded their seasonal rainfall averages, with Rocky Butte’s 50 inches of rain leading the way, Lindsey said. Reservoir levels are up by at least 49 percent throughout the county, according to county and city data.
Even so, meteorologists and state and local officials say it’s far too premature to declare that the drought and the water conservation measures that have come with it are over. In fact, many say preserving resources should remain a priority, whether or not Gov. Jerry Brown’s emergency declaration stays in place.
What brought the rain?
After a persistent dry period measured in years, more than 10 inches of rain in a single month may seem miraculous. It’s actually the result of pressure systems — cooler, low-pressure systems are needed to produce “big weather,” or the storms that had been bypassing the Central Coast and Southern California, said Kathy Hoxsie, a National Weather Service meteorologist in the Oxnard/Los Angeles office.
A persistent, high-pressure ridge off the coast had kept those storm systems to the north, causing the drought. But this year, “the patterns kind of set up a different way,” Hoxsie said.
The high-pressure ridge has been moving around the Pacific, opening the door for storm systems to make their way to the Central Coast.
Last week, the needed low-pressure systems came from the north, south and west, bringing storms and wet weather, Hoxsie said.
“For now, we’re not seeing a big (high-pressure) ridge set up shop,” she said.
Even though more storms could come California’s way in early February, Hoxsie said it’s tough to predict how the state will fare throughout the rest of the rainy season. And long term, Hoxsie said, “Overall, it’s still indicating we’re in some sort of climate change.”
As global warming heats up the Earth, low-pressure systems could continue to move north, she said.
How much did the storms help?
Despite heavy rain throughout the state, Doug Carlson, a spokesman for the California Department of Water Resources, said some areas are worse off than others.
“The drought is still on,” he said.
Though the state is now out of the worst category of drought, called “exceptional drought,” 51.4 percent remains in a moderate drought and 26.5 percent — including most of San Luis Obispo County — is still in “severe drought,” according to the U.S. Drought Monitor.
All of the state’s major reservoirs are approaching or have exceeded their historical averages, according to Water Resources data.
Even so, some smaller ones, such as Lopez Lake near Arroyo Grande and Lake Cachuma in Santa Barbara County, aren’t nearly as full. Lake Cachuma remains at 12.3 percent capacity as of Thursday, and Lopez Lake is 34 percent full, according to data from Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo counties.
“We’ve had a remarkably wet year so far,” Carlson said. “There’s not guaranteed continuation.”
Do I still need to conserve?
Despite January’s deluge, state and local officials remain cautious about lifting drought restrictions, especially because the bulk of the rainy season is still yet to come.
The governor proclaimed a drought state of emergency in January 2014, which gave the State Water Resources Control Board the ability to enact mandatory water conservation regulations and required communities to create local water shortage contingency plans.
Brown first asked all Californians to cut their water usage by 20 percent. In April 2015, Brown directed the water board to impose restrictions to achieve a 25 percent statewide water-use reduction.
In May 2016, the water board adjusted its previous conservation measures. The new regulations asked water suppliers to reduce consumption by a specific amount based on the area’s projected three-year water supply.
Cities with enough water no longer need to meet a specific conservation standard, but residents still need to use less water than they did in 2013.
Four cities in the San Luis Obispo County — Atascadero, Morro Bay, Paso Robles and Pismo Beach — have enough supply to qualify for zero percent conservation, according to November water board data. That means they must continue using less water than they did in 2013, but they don’t have to remain under a certain percentage.
South County residents are required to conserve the most water in the county. Arroyo Grande residents have been directed to use 28 percent less water than they did in 2013. The city’s public works director, Geoff English, said the city couldn’t predict the future state of its groundwater supplies and opted to stick with previous conservation measures instead of calculating its three-year water supply.
“Our water supply is still tenuous and challenged,” he said.
Nipomo residents are required to conserve 23 percent, San Luis Obispo 12 percent and Grover Beach 8 percent.
The water board is scheduled to meet Feb. 8 to determine whether conservation measures will be continued.
George Kostyrko, a spokesman for the water board, said members will likely vote to retain regulations.
All components of the state’s water system — reservoirs, groundwater basins and the mountain snowpack — will need to continue accumulating precipitation in order for things to improve, he said. The state may reconsider its response in May, after the rainy season is mostly over.
“We don’t want to act too early,” Kostyrko said.
San Luis Obispo-area officials also said they intend to remain conservation-minded, although they take their regulatory lead from the state.
Mychal Boerman, San Luis Obispo water resources program manager, said the city remains cautious about its water supplies as it waits to see how the rest of the season plays out.
“It’s important to remember that we are still in the middle of the rainy season,” he wrote in an email. Although “we can’t be sure what the next months may deliver, we are off to a great start and the recent rainfall has done a lot for our local reservoirs.”
Dick McKinley, Paso Robles public works director, said the city has a larger water supply than most, because it draws from Lake Nacimiento, Santa Margarita Lake and groundwater, and it is in the midst of building a recycled water plant. Even so, he said he thinks California development standards have permanently changed, shifting away from water-heavy design elements.
“It’s just a different value system,” he said.
Mark Hutchinson, county public works deputy director, said certain parts of the county have fared better than others when it comes to water: “We have to assume future years will be drought.”
“I think those water restrictions are probably a permanent part of California life moving forward,” he said.