By TIM HEARDEN
The past year of persistent storms and cooler-than-usual weather has pushed California and much of the West out of a drought, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor.
Only small sections of northeastern California and southern Oregon are rated as abnormally dry or in moderate drought, as is nearly all of Nevada, according to the monitor set up by the U.S. Climate Prediction Center.
The center's seasonal outlook predicts the drought to linger only in the inland high desert region where California, Nevada and Oregon meet.
But don't expect any radical changes in water policy anytime soon, officials say.
In California, where more than three years of drought has contributed to irrigation supply cutbacks for farmers, it remains to be seen how much precipitation arrives this fall before allocations are set, said Lynnette Wirth, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation in Sacramento.
"One of the things that really hurt was we came off of three years of critically dry conditions," Wirth said. "Things are looking better now ... I guess what I can tell you is we're looking forward to a good year. We're going into it much better than we did last year, with reservoir levels looking good."
Weather officials are likewise slow to declare an end to the drought, even though California's nearly 15.8 million acre-feet of total storage is well above the average of 15.3 million acre-feet at this time of year.
"When you start getting into drought, it gets a little tricky," said Kathy Hoxsie, a National Weather Service warning coordinator in Sacramento.
While most of the reservoirs in the state are near normal, Lake Oroville is "a major exception," Hoxsie said. The lake was at only 52 percent of capacity and 80 percent of normal as of Sept. 20, according to the California Department of Water Resources.
The Trinity and Stanislaus basins in California are "not looking as good as other places," either, Wirth said. Trinity Lake was at only 65 percent of capacity and the New Melones Reservoir was at 53 percent as of Sept. 20.
"What we like to see is at least a couple of years of having that good rainfall," Hoxsie said. "It's not just measured by reservoir levels but recharge in the ground soils and other places that water lurks.
"We were so dry for so long," she said. "It's going to take at least another near normal year for us to be considered coming out of the drought, and we'd like to see Oroville getting more water than it has."
A cooler summer helped soils retain some of their moisture, Hoxsie said. However, while La NiÃ±a conditions could bring more rain and snow to the Pacific Northwest and Northern California, drought could persist in Southern California and the Southwest, cautions Mike Halpert, the Climate Prediction Center's deputy director in Camp Springs, Md.
"California in particular and the whole Southwest has water resource issues much more than just what falls from the sky," he said. "Populations continue to grow, and there's not a lot of new resources for water."
Here are the percentages of capacity for California reservoirs as of midnight Sept. 20, according to the Department of Water Resources California Data Exchange Center:
Trinity Lake: 65 percent
Shasta Lake: 74 percent
Lake Oroville: 52 percent
New Bullards Bar Reservoir: 66 percent
Folsom Lake: 65 percent
New Melones Reservoir: 53 percent
Lake McClure: 69 percent
Millerton Lake: 51 percent
Pine Flat Reservoir: 38 percent
Lake Isabella: 32 percent
San Luis Reservoir: 39 percent