By Sharon Bernstein
SACRAMENTO, Calif., March 24 (Reuters) - The portion of California experiencing severe drought conditions has shrunk considerably thanks to a wet winter, dropping to 73 percent this week from 93 percent at this time last year, the National Drought Mitigation Center said Thursday.
A series of storms, including several prompted by the El Nino ocean-warming phenomenon that dropped more than 20 inches (51 cm) of rain in some areas this month, has caused most reservoirs and the state's previous snowpack to return to normal levels for the first time in years.
But Brian Fuchs, a climatologist with the Nebraska-based Drought Mitigation Center, said the state will need more rain this year and next to repair the damage done by four dry years that have depleted groundwater, damaged the state's tourism business and led farmers to fallow a half-million acres (202,343 hectares) of land.
"We have added a lot of moisture and have had pretty good snows and rains in the state but the drought has been significant enough that you're not going to reverse all those issues in a single winter," Fuchs said.
The drought, which is currently in its fourth year, was declared an emergency by Democratic Governor Jerry Brown and prompted the state's first-ever mandatory conservation orders for homes and businesses.
Many residents in the northern part of the state, which has received by far the most rain, are beginning to chafe under the cutbacks, which require some communities to reduce their water use by as much as 36 percent.
But parts of Southern California, including the area around the coastal city of Santa Barbara, remain parched.
The Drought Monitor report, which takes into account such factors as the presence of conservation restrictions and the impact on tourism in addition to simple rainfall, still shows that nearly three-fourths of the state is in severe drought, and 55 percent is in exceptional drought, the second-highest category.
About 35 percent of the state, most of it along the central coast and up the state's Central Valley breadbasket, remains in exceptional drought, the worst category.
By comparison, this time last year 93 percent of the state was in severe drought, 67 percent was in extreme drought and 41 percent was in exceptional drought.
(Reporting by Sharon Bernstein; Editing by Alan Crosby)
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