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Feds say 25% of California is drought-free, but state experts are still cautious

Feds say 25% of California is drought-free, but state experts are still cautious
Heavy rains in Northern California this fall have eliminated drought conditions in much of the northern part of the state. Above, a rainy October day in San Francisco. (Paul Chinn / San Francisco Chronicle)

A rainy October in Northern California has lifted about a quarter of the state out of drought conditions, the U.S. Drought Monitor reported Thursday.

It's the rosiest picture released by federal officials since the spring of 2013, when about 64% of the state was considered to be in "moderate drought" — or worse.

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The rains so far this fall have given some weather watchers reason for optimism as California braces for a potential sixth year of drought.

But much of Central and Southern California remain locked in what the drought monitor calls "exceptional or extreme drought." About 43% of the state has been classified as such for at least the last three months.

Mike Anderson, the state's climatologist, said California has enjoyed "a good start to the water year," which began Oct. 1, but cautioned that it is still early.

"We really need to wait until we get into the main part of our wet season" to assess whether how much the drought has been eased, Anderson said.

The U.S. Drought Monitor relies heavily on precipitation levels and soil moisture to assess conditions, state water officials said. For that reason, an unusually wet October, such as the one Northern California just experienced, would show some areas as having escaped drought.

Anderson pointed out that one of the most important indicators of the health of the state's hydrology is the Sierra Nevada snowpack, which officials don't begin measuring until December.

The State Water Resources Control Board continues to call for water conservation. Max Gomberg, the board's climate and conservation manager, said he remains concerned about areas of the state still suffering through dry conditions.

"We've been in drought for five years now," he added. "We've lost tens of millions of trees, we've had … a whole host of … devastating impacts. That doesn't go away overnight."

Twitter: @bymattstevens

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UPDATES:

6:34 p.m.: This article was updated with comment from state water officials.

This article was originally published at 4:50 p.m.

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