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California drought map, Jan. 3, 2017

Remember the drought? It’s surprisingly easy to forget that this time two years ago, we were staring at a really terrifying situation. It had barely rained for three years. Reservoirs statewide were at unprecedentedly low levels, the state’s mountains has shed their white coats of snow and were down to bare granite, and governments were under huge pressure to cut water usage any way they could.

Even here in Napa County, we were facing unusual restrictions on lawn watering, car washing, and even getting water in restaurants.

With the exception of American Canyon, which is entirely dependent on imported water, Napa County has always been fairly lucky – we have decent groundwater supplies that held steady during the drought and we had just enough rain to keep our reservoirs out of the danger zone.

Still, at this same point two years ago, Napa County was well within the area rated as in “Extreme drought,” the second highest level of drought, by the U.S. Drought Monitor, a multi-agency federal group monitoring water supplies nationwide. That extreme region extended all the way to the Oregon border. The areas of the state in “Exceptional drought,” the worst possible drought condition, included almost all of the Central Coast, Southern California, the Central Valley and most of the Sierras.

Today, if you’re reading this anywhere near Napa County, it is probably raining very hard on you. At minimum, you’re drying out from a good soaking from one of a series of storms that is leading us to the wettest January in many years.

So that means the drought is over, right?

Not so fast. Certainly here in Napa County, and across much of the North Bay, we’re in pretty good shape for water – the reservoirs are full, the ground is gratifyingly wet, meaning our water table is back to healthy levels.

But look at the Drought Monitor map and you’ll see that much of the state remains in extreme or exceptional drought. The huge swaths of red and orange on the map have shrunk back substantially since January of 2015 (Napa County is merely in the “abnormally dry” region, the lowest level of drought, and it will probably be even better by the time the map is updated next Friday), but they still cover about half the state.

Our recent gratifying rainy season has brought little relief to huge areas of Southern California, including Los Angeles, Ventura, Orange, San Bernardino and Riverside counties, which are in exceptional status. Most of the Central Valley remains in extreme drought, a condition that may persist for years and years because drastic overuse of ground water has wiped out many aquifers in the area.

California has an amazingly intricate water supply system, one of the engineering marvels of the world. Our local water distribution networks are highly interconnected, from Oregon all the way to Mexico.

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That means that as long as any part of the system is in extreme drought, we’re all in a drought. If Los Angeles is thirsty, it costs American Canyon more to get the water it needs. If it snows in Lassen County, residents in San Bernardino County can water their lawns. If not, they can’t.

To make matters even more complicated, the Western states in the Colorado River basin, all the way to Colorado, are only just starting to come out of a decade long-drought. And that Colorado River water helps supply Southern California, so if that’s gone, then Los Angeles will need to put even more pressure on our supplies here in Northern California.

To the extent there is an official definition of “drought,” it is any condition where your normal water supply is impaired. That’s why we were still in a drought this time last year – Northern California reservoirs were back to normal levels, but there was essentially no snow pack on the Sierras, meaning about a third of the state’s normal water supply was simply missing.

This year, the latest snow pack assessment was only about 72 percent of normal, meaning we still don’t know where a big chunk of California’s water will come from next summer.

To be sure, things are looking up, way up, in water terms, particularly with the recent rain storms and a new round of snow in the Sierras, which should improve the next snow pack measurement.

But it is too simple to say that the drought is over – it isn’t, and it probably won’t be for many years, no matter how much it rains.

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You can reach Sean Scully at 256-2246 or



Sean has been editor of the Napa Valley Register since April of 2014. His previous credits include the Press Democrat, The Weekly Calistogan, The Washington Times and Time and People magazines.