This February was one of the driest months on record in Santa Rosa, adding to concerns about higher water and sewer bills, restrictions on water flowing into the Russian River and damage to crops.
Reservoir levels are still relatively high. But with spring around the corner and no major storms on the horizon, it could be a matter of time before the dry conditions cause unwanted problems, officials said.
The Sonoma County Water Agency was weighing Wednesday whether to declare this a "critically dry" year, a designation that could lead to significantly lower flows on the Russian River.
The decision hinged on how much rain accumulated on the North Coast on Wednesday. The water agency already is releasing the minimum amount of water into the river as a precaution, said spokeswoman Ann DuBay.
"We're keeping a close eye on it so that we can keep more water in Lake Mendocino and Lake Sonoma for the summer and the fall chinook migrations," she said.
This February would have been the sixth driest on record in Santa Rosa were it not for the .61 inches of rain that fell Tuesday night and on Wednesday, which was an extra day added to the calendar because of leap year.
The extra rain bumped Santa Rosa's February total to 1.37 inches, making it the tenth driest since 1931. The accumulations were well below the 81-year monthly average of 5.22 inches.
Only .08 inches of rain fell in Santa Rosa in February 1953, making it the driest on record. The wettest February was in 1998 when nearly 20 inches of rain fell in the city.
This is a La Ni? year as it was in 2011. But last year, the North Coast was drenched and the Sierra was blanketed with snow because the high-pressure system that has kept storms at bay this winter set up farther east, allowing storms to sweep into California and then become diverted north.
This week's relatively mild winter storm was expected to move on by today. Sun and high temperatures in the 60s in Santa Rosa are predicted for this weekend.
The dry conditions could have implications on water and sewer bills, with some Santa Rosa residents already paying more because they're having to irrigate outdoors at a time of year when it normally rains.
The city of Santa Rosa sold 69 million more gallons of water this January than for the same month last year, and 44 million more gallons in December, according to city officials.
The city uses the winter months to calculate sewer bills for the rest of the year, figuring that the water residents use in December, January and February is for their indoor plumbing needs.
But this year, winter water usage is up as a result of people irrigating plants and lawns. That in turn has led to concerns that sewer bills could be much higher starting on July 1, unless officials take action.
One option being discussed is whether to calculate sewer bills based on last year's winter usage, said Miles Ferris, the city's utility director.
"We want to make sure we don't penalize people," he said. "It's a fairness issue."
It's unclear whether the city's utility board or the City Council has the authority to make such a change in calculations, which another city official said would be "unprecedented."