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Orange County Water Agency Says Drought Is No Longer An Emergency

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Out in Mission Viejo. (Photo by C-Monster via the LAist Featured Photos pool on Flickr)
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As the saying goes: when it rains it pours. Though, for the Southland, the phrase is less so a proverb, and more of a literal description of the past few months.

The rain has been unrelenting, to say the least. So much so that several water agencies across Southern California are saying that, yup, that nasty, historic drought is officially over. In late January, the San Diego County Water Authority made that bold declaration, adding that San Diego County had amassed enough water to last residents for the next three years. On Monday, Orange County joined the celebration as the board of directors at the Municipal Water District of Orange County (MWDOC) voted unanimously to declare that the community is mostly out of the red, reports the O.C. Register. This means that the agency is advising that emergency regulations are no longer needed—those regulations were ushered in by Governor Jerry Brown in 2014, as part of an effort to curb the state's water usage by 25%. The Orange County agency said in a release that its reservoirs are now "overflowing."

The timing of the agency's declaration is not arbitrary. On Wednesday, the State Water Resources Control Board will convene to consider extending the regulatory measures. The agency's staff is expected to recommend keeping the measures through April or May, citing extreme drought conditions that still persist in parts of California.

As indicated by the U.S. Drought Monitor, approximately one-fifth of the state is still in "Severe Drought" conditions, and one-half is in "Moderate Drought." The most dire level—"Extreme Drought"—persists in parts of L.A. County, Santa Barbara County, and in most of Ventura County.

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Still, the MWDOC says that the big picture doesn't describe what's going on at ground level, adding that while Orange County is still technically in a drought, it shouldn't be subjected to measures that are as dire as the ones relegated to other counties. “It defies logic to tell the public—to force water agencies to tell the public—that we are still in a drought emergency,” said Wayne Osborne, president of the MWDOC Board of Directors. “We remain in a drought, but it is no longer an emergency. Not only is it unnecessary, continuing the ‘emergency’ will destroy local leaders’ credibility with their stakeholders.”

Indeed, the state has been flush with water as of late. According to OC Weekly, 50 of California's 58 counties have been under "flood-emergency" in the recent wave of rain storms. The Sierra Nevada snowpack, perhaps the single biggest indicator of the state's drought levels, is measured at 173% above normal. And Northern California has seen 198% more rain that it normally does by this time of year.

Still, much of the Southland is mired in drought conditions. A drought doesn't end just because it's started raining; that rain would have to make up for the toll that has been exacted by years and years of dryness. One of the big issues is a lack of groundwater; experts project that it may take one or two more seasons of exceptional rainfall before we get back to normal levels, reports LA Weekly. "The drought has been so severe here that it takes a long time to replenish the groundwater system," said David L. Feldman, a UC Irvine professor of planning, policy and design. "A lot of the water runs off into the ocean." Oh yeah, we also have 62 million dead trees throughout the state, many of which had perished under the drought. And dead vegetation means a higher risk for wildfires.

So, all in all, it's hard to say when we'll truly be in the clear; even if a drought is over, its consequences linger. As one climatologist told National Geographic, “it can take more than a single good year of snowpack for a drought to truly end.”