After two consecutive dry years in California, this year is shaping up as a third.
In many parts of the state, this has been the driest year on record. And the long-range forecast is bleak, leaving water officials to ponder historic droughts.
"The question we're all asking ourselves is, 'Is this 1976 and moving into 1977?'" Jay Jasperse, the Sonoma County Water Agency's chief engineer, said recently.
Skeptical? Take a look around. It's mid-December and Sonoma County's foothills, typically a lush green for Christmas, are still the golden-brown hue of mid-summer. Santa Rosa has had less than 8 inches of rain in 2013, about a quarter of its annual average. Fire season, typically over by late October, extended into December this year, with more than 3,500 acres of vegetation consumed by a Thanksgiving week blaze near The Geysers.
Annual rainfall is typically measured from July 1 through June 30, and long-range weather forecasts always come with a disclaimer — actual results may vary — so it's possible that drought warnings will be washed away by spring. To repurpose a line made famous by Clint Eastwood, do you feel lucky?
"We've got to hope for the best but plan for the worst," as Sonoma County Supervisor Mike McGuire told Staff Writer Sean Scully.
In a state as big as California, the impacts of a drought won't hit everywhere at the same time.
Some areas already are suffering. Water deliveries to the Central Valley were reduced this year, and deeper cuts are anticipated in 2014. The state recently warned water project contractors that they may get as little as 5 percent of their contracted allotment.
Closer to home, Willits is considering a new round of mandatory conservation measures, and the Sonoma County Water Agency is seeking permission to reduce the flow in the upper Russian River to conserve dwindling water supplies in Lake Mendocino. PG&E, meanwhile, is seeking to cut diversions from the Eel River, a major source of water in the upper Russian rather than risk Lake Pillsbury going dry after another low rainfall year.
With Lake Sonoma still at 70 percent of capacity, there is no immediate threat in most of Sonoma and Marin counties. One more dry year, Water Agency officials say, and that may change.
Conservation edicts almost certainly are coming. Why wait? Cut back on outdoor irrigation. Fix leaky sprinkler systems. Replace a thirsty lawn with drought-tolerant landscaping.
Every bit helps, but it will take more than residential conservation to weather a lengthy drought. A four-member household uses about 131,400 gallons of water annually, while a 100-acre vineyard uses about 32.6 million gallons, plus up to 15 million more for frost protection in a cold year, according to figures compiled by state and federal regulators and Sonoma County ag interests.
After two dry years, federal climate scientists warned recently, drought conditions are likely to persist — even in a normal rain year.
It's time to prepare, and all water users must share the burden of saving.