SAN FRANCISCO (AP) — While much of California remains in the grips of extreme drought, spring storms have eased pressure slightly and reduced the number of rural communities considered at risk of running dry.
In February, the California Department of Public Health listed 17 mostly rural water systems as having less than two months water supply in storage.
But in recent weeks that number has fallen to three as February and March rains improved the water picture in some areas.
"The initial drinking water systems identified has having drought-related water supply concerns was based on our initial survey and included drinking water systems with both short-term and longer-term concerns," said Mark Starr, deputy director of the public health agency's Center for Environmental Health, in a statement emailed to The Associated Press. "Since that time, some systems have been able to improve their situation."
In the tiny town of Willits in Mendocino County, the nearly 5,000-resident community's two small reservoirs are full after being nearly empty in February. The town was under mandatory water conservation, and it has now called for a voluntary 20-percent reduction.
While its water picture has improved, the town perched in Northern California's redwood forests is under threat from another drought-related issue: fire. The state has already responded to more than 1,000 fires this year -- double the 450 that is typical for this time of year.
"We are still under a local declared emergency. But the emphasis has shifted from lack of water to fire danger and preserving water supply for what is anticipated to be a difficult fire year," said Adrienne Moore, Willits' city manager.
The U.S. Drought Monitor shows a vast majority of the state in "extreme" or "exceptional" drought. The Sierra Nevada snowpack that provides a third of California's drinking water is only at 32 percent of normal as the state heads toward the dry summer months.
"We are rapidly approaching the end of the rainy season, but clearly there is still very dry hydrology throughout the state," said Jeanine Jones, deputy drought manager for California's Department of Water Resources. "The checkbook has been significantly depleted, and the savings account, which is reservoir storage, will be drawn down as we go through the summer season."
Some towns' drinking water systems are still at risk: Montague in Siskiyou County may not have enough water to last through the summer, and it has asked residents to suspend all outside watering.
The town's reservoir, Lake Shastina, currently has about 8,400 acre-feet of water -- normally it's at about 33,000. One acre foot is enough to last a family of four about a year.
It's the first time in the 80-year history of the town of about 1,500 people that the water levels have been so low, according to the City Council.
Public health and other state agencies are working to help run a pipeline connecting the town to the Shasta River before it runs out of water. But with time running out, residents are nervous.
"I'd say it's 50-50 at the moment. We don't know who's going to throw a roadblock up," said Chris Tyhurst, who supervises Montague's water treatment plant. "We're hoping if everyone keeps conserving the way they have that we might make it to August 1."
The Redwood Valley County Water District in Mendocino County, which serves nearly 4,000 residents, is also still at risk, as well as a 55-person apartment complex in Mariposa County.
Public health officials are working with all three districts to find solutions, which could be connecting them to neighboring water supplies, finding new underground water sources or building new treatment plants.
Even with drinking water problems being addressed, the state is scrambling to handle a two-fold increase in fires because of the dry conditions.
The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection employed its extra 230 seasonal firefighters starting in January. That's usually done in May.
"Even in March with the rainfall, we were still responding to wildfires every week," said Daniel Berlant, Calfire's spokesman. "Over the last decade, we've seen more large fires than ever before."
Jason Dearen can be reached at http://www.twitter.com/JHDearen