By Shawn Hubler
SACRAMENTO Calif. (Reuters) - As California lawmakers moved a nearly $7.6 billion water bond to the November ballot, federal meteorologists said on Thursday that the state's ongoing drought has appeared to level off, though conditions remain "extreme" in 80 percent of the state.
"Areas of dryness and drought remained unchanged," according to the National Drought Mitigation Center, based at the University of Nebraska, despite epic storms that have intermittently lashed parts of both Northern and Southern California.
Torrential rains early this month triggered lethal mudslides and flash floods in the San Gabriel Mountains near Los Angeles, and thunderstorms both eased and complicated the work of firefighters battling wildfires this week in Northern California.
But those storms "were pretty much a drop in the bucket," said Richard Tinker, a drought expert with the federal government's Climate Prediction Center.
"Any rain this time of year - while a bonus - doesn't really have much of an effect on the drought," Tinker said.
Nearly 82 percent of the state is experiencing "extreme" drought, according to the latest U.S. Drought Monitor map, which is updated weekly by the center. Fifty-eight percent of the state, meanwhile, is withering under "exceptional" drought, which is the most severe measure on the center's scale.
The figures, while sobering, indicated a pause in what had been a seemingly inexorable expansion of the drought across the nation’s most populous state and most important agricultural producer. The percentage of the state gripped by the drought has been relatively unchanged for the past couple of weeks.
Tinker added that the state's major reservoirs in aggregate were at 59 percent of the historical average—low, but not as low as the 41 percent recorded during the 1976-77 drought.
Only a handful of smaller Central Coast dams, he said, had fallen below those 1977 levels, a situation that lawmakers are seeking to address with the water bond proposed for the upcoming ballot.
Made more urgent as the drought has strained California's water supply to crisis proportions, funds raised by selling bonds would shore up the state's water infrastructure, underwriting projects that include improved water storage, flood control, groundwater cleanup, drinking and wastewater treatment and investments to address climate change.
(Editing by Sharon Bernstein and Sandra Maler)