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44% of California is now experiencing moderate drought conditions, report says

44% of California is now experiencing moderate drought conditions, report says
Grant Davis, director of the state Department of Water Resources, discusses the results of the first snow survey of the season in early January at the Phillips Station snow course in the Eastern Sierra. (Rich Pedroncelli / Associated Press)

California is rapidly plunging back into drought, with severe conditions now existing in Santa Barbara, Ventura and Los Angeles counties — home to one-fourth of the state's population — a national drought monitor said Thursday.

The weekly report released by the U.S. Drought Monitor, a project of government agencies and other partners, shows 44% of the state is now considered to be in a moderate drought. It's a dramatic jump from just last week, when the figure was 13%.

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"It's not nearly where we'd like to be," Frank Gehrke, a state official, said after separately carrying out manual measurements of winter snowfall in the Sierra Nevada, which supplies water to millions of Californians in a good, wet year.

Overall, the vital snowpack Thursday stood at less than one-third of normal for the date.

California lifted a drought state of emergency less than a year ago, ending cutbacks that at the peak of the drought mandated 25% conservation by cities and towns, devastated generations of native salmon and other wildlife, made household wells run dry in the state's middle and compelled farmers to dig deep, costly wells.

A rainy winter last year in the state's north finally snapped the worst of that drought.

The new figures from national drought monitors came amid growing concern among state officials about another dry winter. The dry spell is acute in Southern California. Los Angeles and some surrounding areas have received only one significant storm in nearly a year, and it triggered deadly mudslides. The region is now seeing record-setting heat.

The readings detailed Thursday show the drought has worsened to the severe category in 5% of the state.

However, Thursday's figures were far better than those during the peak of the state's epic dry spell, when 99.9% of California was in some stage of drought, and nearly half in the highest category.

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