California drought: What happened to the rain? January 18 2015
When Dennis Conta started building his dream house in Santa Cruz three years ago, he prayed that it wouldn't rain much during the long construction process.
"Got to be careful what you pray for," he mused Friday, nearly three weeks after the region's last big storm, which drenched the Bay Area on Christmas Eve and gave residents so much hope that California's historic drought was about to end. Now, many Northern Californians are wondering whether 2014's water-laden finale was just a tease.
An unusually wet December has given way to a hot, totally dry January. And it's creating angst among drought-weary residents like the 69-year-old Conta, whose house is still under construction.
Weather experts, however, say not to panic. They emphasize that it's too soon to say that California is headed into its fourth straight year of drought. And they point out that a dry January is not out of the ordinary in a typical Northern California winter.
"A midwinter dry spell occurs almost every winter, and it averages 19 days," said meteorologist Jan Null, owner of Golden Gate Weather Services in Saratoga. "Now if it persists on to February and March, then we're getting out of the normal realm."
The National Weather Service said Saturday there's no rain in sight for Northern California except for some Sunday showers that will moisten Eureka and spread inland along the state's northern edge. And longer-term forecasts, Null and other meteorologists say, are riddled with uncertainty, making it hard for water providers to set policies for the coming months.
The glut of water in December brought some welcome changes to California businesses whose lifeblood is water, such as Uesugi Farms in Gilroy. The strawberries that workers planted in November did not need watering at all in December, owner Pete Aiello said.
"Mother Nature supplied plenty of irrigation that month," he said. Last week was the first time he had to irrigate them since they were planted.
More than most folks, the farmer understands what meteorologists like Null are saying about the rain lulls in a Mediterranean climate.
But, he said, "I don't remember the last time we got through January without a drop. We usually get a little rain."
Still, landscapers and golf course owners say they remain optimistic. Unlike in the past three years -- when many had to turn on the sprinklers because of long stretches without rain -- this year everything is still green without watering, even in a sunny January.
"The golf courses look outstanding -- great color and firm ground," said Bob Costa, who manages two golf courses in Monterey and turned off the sprinklers in November. Costa also remembers lots of other winters marked by wet Februariess.
Despite all the fretting about the dry January, San Jose is still at 156 percent of normal precipitation for this date. San Francisco is at 133 percent, Oakland at 113 percent.
Because the December storms were warm, however, ski resorts haven't been as lucky getting snow as most of Northern California has been getting rain. The Sierra snowpack is below 40 percent of normal.
December, however, was still better for ski resorts compared with recent years. Heavenly Mountain in South Lake Tahoe saw 14 inches fall in just one 24-hour period, augmenting the work of snow-making machines.
"We're in great shape this year," said Sally Gunter, a spokeswoman for the resort.
But the same can't be said for California in general. The state's largest reservoirs are less than half full.
That reality was not far from the mind of Jenny Knowles, a graduate student at San Jose State University.
"Oh yeah, the rain was amazing," she said. "But I knew it wouldn't be enough."
Knowles said she is continuing the water conservation practices she began early in the drought, which is welcome news to water district officials.
"We just really ask that our customers continue to conserve and please do not let off the gas on conservation efforts," said Andrea Pook, spokeswoman for the East Bay Municipal Utility District. "December was wet. January is dry. And the rest of the season, we just have no idea. It could really go either way."
EBMUD customers get much of their water from the Mokelumne Watershed originating in the central Sierra, which did not receive as much rain as the rest of California in December.
The fact that East Bay homes and businesses saw record rainfall, but their watershed did not, illustrates a potential point of confusion for area residents.
"It's just all a matter of where your water comes from, and a storm could come along and just barely miss you," Pook said. "It's confusing for customers."
The actions by two municipal water agencies last month illustrate this point clearly.
On Dec. 9, EBMUD asked customers to decrease their water use this year by 15 percent from 2013 levels. Last year, the district requested only a 10 percent cut.
But that same day, the water department for the city of Santa Cruz temporarily suspended mandatory water-rationing measures.
"We got quite a bit of rain in November and December," explained Eileen Cross with the Santa Cruz Water Department. And, she noted, 95 percent of the city's drinking water comes from rivers and streams.
"We're not having to use any of our reservoirs," Cross said.
The Santa Cruz City Council could reinstate mandatory water rationing at any time, she said. But for now city officials are waiting to see if February and March will make up for a parched January.
Unfortunately, weather forecasts more than seven days out are often inaccurate.
"There are so many subtle things that can change in the atmosphere over a week's time," Null said. "A storm hitting California on a Saturday is coming off the Asian continent a week before. If it shifts just 10 miles the week before, that can be the difference between getting rain in Seattle or rain in San Francisco."
One truth remains in our winter of uncertainty: The growing concern over a dry January comes during the worst drought in decades. So any water deficit this year will be piled on top of a record water debt.
"Right now we're just working on our credit card bills from last month's statement," meteorologist Null said. "But we have past due bills from the last three years."