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News / Nation & World

Storms end Southern California water restrictions for 7M

By JOHN ANTCZAK and STEFANIE DAZIO, Associated Press
Published: March 16, 2023, 8:05am

LOS ANGELES (AP) — California’s 11th atmospheric river left the storm-soaked state with a bang Wednesday, bringing flooded roadways, landslides and toppled trees to the southern part of the state as well as drought-busting rainfall that meant the end of water restrictions for nearly 7 million people.

Even as residents struggled to clean up before the next round of winter arrives in the coming days — with some 27,000 people still under evacuation orders statewide Wednesday — the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California’s decision brought relief amid the state’s historic drought.

The district supplies water for 19 million people in six counties. The board imposed the restrictions, which included limiting outdoor watering to one day a week, in parts of Los Angeles, Ventura and San Bernardino counties last year during a severe shortage of state water supplies.

But weather woes remained Wednesday, as an additional 61,000 people remained under evacuation warnings and emergency shelters housed more than 650 people, according to the California Governor’s Office of Emergency Services.

Meanwhile in Arizona, the city of Sedona urged people in a dozen areas to immediately evacuate Wednesday evening because of predicted flooding of Oak Creek. The churning waters had submerged a roadway near a mobile home park and forecasters said it could rise to 15 feet (4.6 meters), a foot above flood stage.

In Southern California, flooding also closed several miles of the Pacific Coast Highway through Huntington Beach, south of Los Angeles on the Orange County coast, and potholes disabled more than 30 cars on one Southern California freeway. More than 144,000 utility customers statewide remained without power Wednesday afternoon, according to poweroutage.us.

Some Southern California beaches were closed as heavy rain overwhelmed sewage systems and sent thousands of gallons of raw sewage to the sea.

In Los Angeles, a man who clung to a concrete wall of the rushing, rain-swollen Los Angeles River was saved from being swept away when a Fire Department rescuer, dangling from a helicopter, reached him and he was hauled up to safety.

Gov. Gavin Newsom surveyed flood damage in an agricultural region on the central coast, noting that California could potentially see a 12th atmospheric river next week. Officials have not yet determined the extent of the winter storms’ damage, both structurally and financially.

“Look back — last few years in this state, it’s been fire to ice with no warm bath in between,” the Democrat said, describing “weather whiplash” in a state that has quickly gone from extreme drought and wildfires to overwhelming snow and rain.

“If anyone has any doubt about Mother Nature and her fury, if anyone has any doubt about what this is all about in terms of what’s happening to the climate and the changes that we are experiencing, come to California,” the governor said.

California’s latest atmospheric river was one of two storm systems that bookended the U.S. this week. Parts of New England and New York were digging out of a nor’easter Wednesday that caused tens of thousands of power outages, numerous school cancellations and whiteout conditions on roads.

Remaining showers across Southern California were expected to decrease through Wednesday evening as the storm headed toward parts of the Great Basin. The weather service said California will see minor precipitation this weekend, followed by another substantial storm next week.

Three clifftop apartment buildings were evacuated Wednesday morning when earth slid away from their backyards in coastal San Clemente, the Orange County Fire Authority said. Residents were also cleared out of a nearby building as the severity of the slide was studied.

Orange County had already declared a local emergency when a similar hillside collapsed March 3 in Newport Beach, leaving a house uninhabitable and endangering others.

For downtown Los Angeles, the National Weather Service said just under two feet of rain (61 centimeters) has been recorded so far this water year — making this the 14th wettest in more than 140 years of records.

An overnight mudslide onto a road in the Baldwin Hills area of Los Angeles County trapped two cars, KNBC-TV reported. Another hillside in the neighborhood also gave way, threatening the foundation of a hilltop home.

Weather in the northern and central sections of the state had dried out earlier, following Tuesday’s heavy rain and fierce winds that blew out windows on a San Francisco high-rise and gusted to 74 mph (119 kph) at the city’s airport.

Forty-three of the state’s 58 counties have been under states of emergency due to the storms.

Despite California’s rains winding down, flood warnings remain in effect on the central coast for the Salinas and Pajaro rivers in Monterey County and other rivers in the Central Valley as water runs off land that has been saturated by storms since late December.

Runoff from a powerful atmospheric river last week burst a levee on the Pajaro River, triggering evacuations as water flooded farmland and agricultural communities. Nearly half of the people under evacuation orders were in Monterey County. Closed sections of the Pacific Coast Highway in the area were expected to reopen Wednesday night.

The first phase of repairs on the 400-foot (120-meter) levee breach was completed Tuesday afternoon, and crews were working to raise the section to full height, county officials said.

Damage continued to emerge elsewhere in the state. In the Sequoia National Forest, the Alta Sierra Ski Resort said it would be closed for at least two weeks because of extensive flooding and infrastructure damage, citing the U.S. Forest Service. There is also “massive slide potential” on the highway serving the resort, the resort tweeted.

California was deep in drought before an unexpected series of atmospheric rivers barreled into the state from late December through mid-January, causing flooding while building a staggering snowpack in the Sierra Nevada.

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Storms powered by arctic air followed in February, creating blizzard conditions that buried mountain communities under so much snow that structures began collapsing.

The water content of the Sierra snowpack is now more than 200% of the April 1 average, when it normally peaks, according to the state Department of Water Resources.

Michael McNutt, a spokesperson for the Las Virgenes Municipal Water District, said the end of the Southern California restrictions is good news but cautioned people to continue to conserve water even in non-drought years.

“We all know that the next drought is just around the corner,” he said Wednesday. “We’ve got to treat the water coming out of our taps as the liquid gold that it is.”

The district depends almost entirely on state water supplies and had adopted aggressive conservation measures, including putting devices that drastically restrict water flow onto the homes of hundreds of people — including celebrities — who were deemed to be wasting water.

That program is now on hold, as is the district’s restrictions on lawn watering.

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