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County declares end to drought emergency

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After spending 38 months in a state of emergency due to the drought, the SLO County Board of Supervisors finally lifted that designation on May 23, marking a local conclusion to one of the harshest droughts in state history.

The county’s action follows Gov. Jerry Brown’s April 7 executive order that ended the statewide drought emergency, with the exception of Fresno, Kings, Tulare, and Tuolumne counties.

Since last July, rainfall has averaged 153 percent of a normal year. Surface reservoir levels recovered substantially in recent months. Lake Nacimiento replenished from a low of 19 percent capacity to 88 percent in 2017; Whale Rock Reservoir rose from 35 percent to 79 percent; Santa Margarita Lake is now at full capacity, up from a low of 13 percent; and Lopez Lake more than doubled in size, from 29 percent to 62 percent.

Agricultural crop production also saw a 10 percent increase in value in 2016 compared to 2015, thanks to rainfall in the latter half of the year.

“Infiltration of moisture into the soil has finally reached depths not seen in the last four years,” a staff report stated.

The supervisors first declared the drought emergency in March 2014, and the supervisors reviewed drought conditions 46 times between then and May 23. An estimated $411,029 was spent on county staff labor associated with the drought.

Though the drought may be over, most of SLO County is still considered “abnormally dry,” according to the U.S. Drought Monitor. And while surface reservoirs have recovered, locals are still grappling with the drought’s long-term effect on groundwater basin hydrology and water levels.

“Everything says we’re out of a drought, but there are still some areas that are pretty bad,” 4th District Supervisor Lynn Compton said at the meeting.

Several of the county policies developed in response to the drought will stay in effect, such as the water offset ordinance applicable to new irrigated farming over the Paso Robles Groundwater Basin and an arrangement among water purveyors in South County to share Lopez Lake reserves as an alternative to tapping into groundwater.

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