36°
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Winter forecast for drought-busting rains fades

  • An oak tree buried under decades of silt and rocks while submerged in Lake Sonoma stands sentinel Friday Aug. 1, 2014 as water continues to recede. California is experiencing its warmest year in recorded history exacerbating drought conditions; most of Northern California is in an exceptional drought according to the Climate Prediction Center. (Kent Porter / Press Democrat)

Firmly in the grip of a historic statewide drought, Sonoma County needs a deluge to offset the lack of substantial rain for the past year and a half; but there is no such prospect on the meteorological horizon, with the once-promising forecast of a strong El Niño season fading away.

Over the past 18 months, from January 2013 to June 2014 — the driest such period in California’s records — the state has amassed a rainfall deficit that exceeds 19 inches, according to the National Climatic Data Center. Santa Rosa’s deficit — the difference between actual and average precipitation — is nearly twice as large, at 37.26 inches.

That means it would take more than double the city’s average rainfall, or about 70 inches, this coming winter and spring to balance the shortfall in local rain gauges and break the drought.

It’s been three years, however, since Santa Rosa even matched its 30-year average of 32.2 inches, and the likelihood of a wet season that significantly beats that mark has waned, leading weather and water officials to speculate that the drought is likely to persist through next year.

“Many parts of California have missed out on nearly a year’s worth of precipitation, and it will take a long time to gain back that deficit even in a best-case scenario,” Daniel Swain, a Stanford University environmental science graduate student, said recently in his California Weather Blog.

The combination of the long-term dry spell and record warmth has produced the “most severe drought conditions experienced in California in living memory,” he said. One set of data suggests that the drought is “more intense” than any other in the 20th century.

The U.S. Drought Monitor on Thursday added most of Northern California, including Sonoma, Mendocino, Lake and Napa counties, to the area classified as “exceptional drought,” the highest level of drought.

Overall, the portion of California experiencing “exceptional drought” jumped to 58 percent, up from 36 percent the previous week, when most of that area extended from San Francisco and the East Bay south to Orange County. Three months ago, just 25 percent of the state was in that category.

The Drought Monitor noted that California’s 154 reservoirs were short more than a year’s worth of water for this time of year and that soil moisture reserves are “nearly depleted” after three years of drought.

Meanwhile, the outlook for an El Niño that would make a difference has dimmed.


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