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Most folks in Cazadero, where 100 inches of rain a year is not big deal, measure every inch in gauges at their homes and discuss their results.

"Everybody's comparing all the time when it rains," said Don Berry, a Cazadero native whose great-grandfather bought the town in the 1880s.

But there was comparatively little to talk about this winter, even in the coastal hills of Sonoma County, where incoming storms typically drop sheets of rain.

According to the Western Regional Climate Center in Reno, California's North Coast Region — defined as a narrow strip of land running from the southwest corner of Sonoma County to the Oregon border — got just 12.6 inches of rain from December through February, the region's third-driest winter in history.

The coast's driest winter was in 1977, when 9.3 inches fell. The wettest winter brought 59.5 inches in 1956.

The North Central Region, which includes most of Sonoma County and also runs to the Oregon border, received 12.8inches, making December-February the 10th-driest winter in 119 years, the climate center found.

There's a bit of rain expected for Sonoma County next week, but the latest long-term forecast puts the entire West Coast in the only zone in the lower 48 states with a "below normal" probability of rain for the next three months, according to the National Weather Service.

With the Redwood Empire's reservoirs only half to three-quarters full and water managers calling for conservation, hope for meaningful moisture is turning toward the prospect of an El Ni? system setting up this summer or fall.

Accuweather meteorologist Randy Adkins said it is "fairly likely" that an El Ni? "of some magnitude" will occur. "We could be looking at some relief from the drought," he said.

But there is no guarantee that El Ni?, a warming of water in the tropical Pacific Ocean, will bring above-average rainfall to California, Adkins said.

The state as a whole posted its sixth-driest winter, with just over 5 inches of precipitation in December through February, the period meteorologists use to define winter.

On the calendar, winter lasted until Thursday, but March — which brought 0.77 inches of rain to Santa Rosa through Friday — did little to offset the dry spell.

February did the hydrological heavy lifting this winter, bringing 9.34 inches of rain to Santa Rosa, 155 percent of normal for the month, according to Accuweather.

December contributed a mere 0.41 inches and January a minuscule 0.1 inches for Santa Rosa. The three-month total came to 9.85 inches, just over half the average total of 18.14 inches.

It was Santa Rosa's 15th-driest winter counting complete seasons going back to 1931, according to Press Democrat records.

"February provided us some much-needed rain," said Brad Sherwood, a Sonoma County Water Agency spokesman, noting increases to the region's three major reservoirs.

Lake Pillsbury in the Mendocino National Forest swelled from 9percent of capacity in January to 76 percent, Sherwood said Friday. Lake Sonoma near Healdsburg hit 74 percent, up from an all-time low of 65 percent in January. Lake Mendocino near Ukiah reached 48 percent of capacity, up from 35 percent in January, but still was deemed critically low.

"We're in far better shape than we were in January, but we're still short of a normal year," Sherwood said.

February's precipitation likely averted mandatory water-rationing orders, he said, but the Water Agency still is asking for a voluntary 20 percent cutback.

"So we are paying close attention to El Ni?-type forecasts for next fall," Sherwood said, calling that the best hope for an end to the drought.

Meanwhile, the county's livestock ranchers are reveling in the lush green grass that is finally sustaining their animals — and hoping for rain and sun to keep it growing.

"That's a lot of food out there," said Tim Tesconi, executive director of the Sonoma County Farm Bureau. Pastures and rangeland cover 500,000 acres, about half of Sonoma County, he said.

Today is expected to kick off a string of three consecutive sunny days with afternoon temperatures in the low 70s, said Adkins, the Accuweather forecaster.

Some rain could come Tuesday or Tuesday night, and a "stronger system" is expected on Wednesday, bringing Santa Rosa one-tenth to one-quarter of an inch of rain, he said. There's also a "potential" for rain at the end of next week, Adkins said.

After March, Santa Rosa's 30-year average rainfall drops below 2 inches for April and May and below a quarter-inch in June.

In Cazadero, Don Berry said he remembers 1977, when the hamlet got 37 inches of rain for the entire season, as well as 140- to 150-inch seasons in the 1980s.

With just under 30 inches so far this season, Berry said, "If we got triple what we have now, it wouldn't be too much."

But not all at once, he said.

(News researcher Janet Balicki contributed to this report. You can reach Staff Writer Guy Kovner at 521-5457 or guy.kovner@pressdemocrat.com.)