Almost a third of California is not experiencing drought conditions for the first time since 2013, according to new numbers the U.S. Drought Monitor released Thursday.
But weather experts say California is not out of the woods yet. The state is in the midst of a historic drought that has lasted for half a decade, and below-average precipitation last year means that water officials in San Francisco are still playing catch-up when it comes to filling up the six reservoirs in the Hetch Hetchy water system.
The new numbers show that just under 30 percent of the state is not in a drought. About 15 percent of the state is drought-free while another 15 percent is “abnormally dry,” meaning in the preliminary stage of a drought but not in one.
While bits of Northern California are in the clear for now, much of Southern California and the Central Coast are experiencing shades of “extreme” or “exceptional” drought, though to lesser extents than last year. Today a fifth of the state is in an exceptional drought compared to more than double that at this time last year.
“It’s certainly indicative that the northern part of the state is doing better,” said Mike Anderson, state climatologist with the Department of Water Resources. “That’s where our big water project reservoirs are, so that’s a good sign.”
The Hetch Hetchy Reservoir, which is the primary source of drinking water for San Francisco as well as a source for other parts of California, is at 88.7 percent capacity today compared to 71 percent last year, according to Charles Sheehan, a spokesperson for the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission.
“We did not fill our reservoir last year,” Sheehan said. “We need a good couple of years to get us out of that hole.”
The entire Hetch Hetchy water system is at 88.1 percent capacity — double the level it was at this time last year, according to Sheehan.
The rise can be attributed to heavy rainfall since October. With a week still left in December, the SFPUC’s upcountry monitoring stations have already reported 6.67 inches of rainfall since Dec. 1 compared to the average 5.67 inches of rain.
The rainfall has helped, but experts say the season could could turn an ugly corner.
A hydrologist with the National Weather Service warned that “well-below normal” rainfall could slip the San Francisco Bay Area back into a drought.
“A lot of what has really erased [the drought] are the recent rains this year,” said Marc Strudley, a hydrologist with the NWS in Monterey. “What fully erased it were essentially these past couple months and the last big storm in particular.”
“It was kind of the last contributing factor that erased the drought,” he said.
The San Francisco International Airport has seen 8.3 inches of rain since Oct. 1 compared to the normal 6.87 inches of rainfall for this time of year, according to Strudley.
As for downtown San Francisco, Strudley said 8.16 inches of rain has fallen since Oct. 1 compared to the normal of 7.46 inches of rain.
And there’s more to come this weekend. Forecasters expected rain to pass through San Francisco Thursday night and continue through today. As for Saturday in The City, it will be “quite cold” with a chance of sporadic showers, Strudley said.
Though the rainy season is “off to a great start locally,” Sheehan said the Public Utilities Commission still wants customers to conserve water as much as possible.
“We’ve seen this before, and the winter could be bone dry,” he said. “You never know what drought is around the corner.”