The Observer: Are we in a drought?

29 March 2020

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USA – According to the U.S. Drought Monitor this week, approximately 75% of California’s land mass is experiencing very dry conditions, ranging from abnormally dry (34.72%) to moderate drought (39.12%) to severe drought (1.2%). Mendocino County is designated as abnormally dry with rainfall totals under 50% of historic averages. With March nearly at end, there will be no “miracle” late season storms to fill rain guages.

Is California is looking at a return to the bone-dry conditions that occurred during the state’s historic drought from 2011 to 2017 when mandatory water cutswere implemented statewide?

Keep in mind that “moderate drought” is the mildest of the five categories that the U.S. Drought Monitor uses to classify drought conditions in their weekly report.

By comparison, exactly one year ago, only 6.58% of California was classified as “abnormally dry.” That was it, no area of the state was found to be in any kind of a drought.

Back in the middle of 2011-2017 drought, categorically 98% of the state was in at least a moderate drought, and 40% was in exceptional drought, the most severe of the Monitor’s five categories.

But that was then and this is now.

What we can say is that as we move into the state’s 6-month dry season, our mostly rainless rain season has reintroduced the prospect of drought into Calfifornia. Most experts agree that California had its worst drought in at least 1,200 years during the 2011-2017 drought.

As discussed here recently, the culprit to this year’s parched winter was a high-pressure system stalled over the Pacific that blocked storms before they could land inland, diverting them north and south and missing most of the state. This storm diverter was what helped cause the 2011-17 drought.

So what are the odds of another drought following so closely on the heels of an epoch dry spell?

According to modeling done by the Center for Watershed Sciences at UC Davis, there’s around an 80 percent chance the state will enter a full-blown drought this year.

If that happens, it could be the third-driest year in over a century, says a report by Capradio. But experts say it’s too early to panic — they say a second year of drought is where things get dicey.

“The first year of a drought is really mostly a wake-up call,” said Jay Lund, the U.C. Davis center’s director. “It will be prudent, if this turns out to be a dry year, for us to prepare for it to be a longer drought.”

But Lund says to not overlook that California’s climate is variable. Droughts are normal, but with climate change they’re intensifying — as the state saw during the previous drought from 2011 to 2017

But some climatologists, like UCLA’s Daniel Swain, says “models are unfortunately painting a continued drier-than-average picture for spring 2020.”

“We didn’t quite get the results we had hoped for and we will most likely end this year below average,” said Sean de Guzman, chief of snow surveys and water forecasting section of the California Department of Water Resources at the Feb 27 snow survey.

But State Climatologist Mike Anderson said there’s a glimmer of hope in that reservoir levels statewide are around 104 percent of average for this time of year.

He also says what’s looking to be a drier-than-average water year is in part attributable to a late start to the rain and snow season, around Thanksgiving; a below-average January; and the record dry February.

That means California is 70 percent abnormally dry, and about a quarter of the state is undergoing drought conditions, according to David Miskus, a NOAA meteorologist who wrote the latest U.S. Drought Monitor.

He says during the past two months “less than 25% of normal precipitation had fallen on much of California and western Nevada, creating deficits of snow exceeding a foot in parts of the Sierra Nevada, and 4-8 inches along the coast.”

According to Lund, the scarcity of rain and snow means fires could ignite sooner in the fire season.

“There will be impacts to the forest, maybe some disease outbreaks, wildfires quite likely and more problems for fish and waterfowl because of this,” Lund said.

On CalFire’s “incident page”, it echos Lund’s concern about this weather pattern could result in a grass fire season in the foothills starting before the typical fire season, and offshore wind events could increase the possibility of fires in Southern California.

It should be an interesting summer as potentially we could be dealing with several unknowns: the COVID-19 virus, a nascent drought, and wildfires once again on the landscape.

Oh well, no one ever said life was trouble-free.

(Jim Shields is the Mendocino County Observer’s editor and publisher, and is also the long-time district manager of the Laytonville County Water District. Listen to his radio program “This and That” every Saturday at 12 noon on KPFN 105.1 FM, also streamed live:

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