Altered landscape like none in memory

  • The Beeson Ranch looks very different with dry grasses replacing glowing mustard on January 25, 2014.

    (John Burgess/The Press Democrat)

The parched, brown landscape offers visceral proof of what the numbers don't fully convey: The North Coast is nearly 13 months into the driest stretch of weather in 83 years of record-keeping.

A winter gone awry has altered the landscape like no other season in memory, shaking our confidence that all will be well as it entices us with a string of abnormally warm, dry days.

A poet envisions the Earth as "an old, neglected woman" and imagines we could fall into its bone-dry cracks.

A plein air painter says the grassy hills of Sonoma County have shed their gold summer mantle for a "dead gray" hue.

In the coastal hills, where soggy winter winds usually drop sheets of rain, a sign at the Cazadero Community Church says: "We are still praying for rain."

Amid the angst of reservoirs, rivers and wells running dry and of catastrophic wildfires erupting, sun-loving Californians are stealing guilty pleasures of summer like chocolates from a box that should not be open.

A man sips beer on a sun-splashed restaurant patio on Fourth Street in Santa Rosa while the digital thermometer on the U.S. Bank <NO1><NO>building reads 73, another January record. Four guys ride through town in a big yellow convertible, top-down.

Officially, Gov. Jerry Brown has declared a statewide drought emergency and the Sonoma County Water Agency, which delivers Russian River water to 600,000 North Bay customers, launched its first wintertime conservation campaign with the theme, "The Drought is On; Turn the Water Off."

Through Monday, Santa Rosa had less than one-tenth of an inch of rain in January, on track for a record and paired with a daytime high temperature averaging 68.4 degrees, nearly 11 degrees above normal for the month.

The Sierra snowpack is 12 percent of normal, red flag fire warnings have been posted and dust storms are blowing in the San Joaquin Valley.

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