March Storms Dump Water, But California Drought Presses On

Spring’s first storm of the season, predicted to pack a wallop, had local Malibu residents scrambling to take safety precautions against flooding and other rain-related problems.  However, the storm that blew through town Wednesday and Thursday turned out to have much less bite than forecasted.

In fact, the Lost Hills Sheriff’s Department that patrols Malibu, Calabasas, Agoura and Topanga reported only five car crashes on area roadways and none involved injuries.  Deputy Lewey of the Lost Hills station said during the two days of rain he was “very surprised.”  Even Malibu Search and Rescue fielded extra patrols mid-week but reported it had zero rescues over the period.  However, afternoon commuters’ nerves were jangled late Friday when Topanga Canyon was closed near Pacific Coast Highway briefly due to an accident—a car took out a utility pole.  The major thoroughfare had been closed a week prior after a previous storm caused a landslide.

So, now that local homeowners perhaps saved a bit of money when outdoor sprinklers were turned off, can we go back to our old water-wasting habits?  According to experts that answer is: “No.” The drought is not over.

Southern California gets its water supply from the Sierra Nevada Mountains in Northern California through the State Water Project. Currently, the snow pack is not that great, though. It’s just over 50 percent of what it should be at this time of year, when less rain is expected to fall in the coming months.  The rain and runoff from the snowmelt gets diverted to the state’s aqueducts that fill our reservoirs. Some of those reservoirs have decent levels, but experts caution to be prudent with water usage.

“As far as precipitation levels—when we see it rain people may think we have a lot of water. Unfortunately, that is not exactly correct. What is correct is that our current reservoir levels, due to last year’s rain event—which was historic—are full,” according to Michael McNutt, public affairs and communications manager for the Las Virgenes Municipal Water District. “They’re brimming with water, but if you look at what’s happened since last year—we’ve only gotten rain in the last month or so—we’re in a really dry situation. Even though we get some rain—it doesn’t move that barometer away from a water deficit.”

With 70 percent of all residential water usage going to irrigate lawns, water districts are still encouraging homeowners to rip out sod and replace it with alternatives including drought-tolerant native landscaping and other material that doesn’t guzzle water.  Just two years ago, Metropolitan Water District spent $35 million on a turf removal rebate program that was finally capped off. That district as well as the LVMWD is talking about bringing another rebate program back.

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The U.S. Drought Monitor, based in Lincoln, Neb., reported that in California 88.9 percent of the state is under some type of abnormally dry condition.  

“Even more specific to our local area (southern Ventura County and northwestern Los Angeles County) is under an extreme drought condition,” Mc Nutt said. “As we continue to go into the warm, dry months, unfortunately, I think those areas are going to grow larger and larger. We’re still in very dry conditions. Everybody across the state, especially here locally, needs to embrace conservation as a California way of life.  Anything that can be done to conserve water, especially using water for outdoor irrigation—where most of it goes—if they can conserve that we’re going to start saving a lot of water and obviously a lot of money for homeowners who won’t be using as much.”

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