Gorgeous green hills and spring-like sunny skies are a feast for the eyes, but no indication that winter is over nor that the strongest El Niño in history — which Californians are counting on to make a dent in the drought — is petering out.
Valley Ford cattle and sheep rancher Joe Pozzi, surveying the verdant pastures and stock ponds brimming with storm runoff, said the rain season is off to an ideal start.
“It’s excellent right now,” he said. “A welcome sign.”
Increasingly longer days and balmy weather like Monday’s 75 degrees in Santa Rosa have the grass growing, a critical factor for livestock ranchers, Pozzi said.
North Bay water managers are equally happy, with Lake Sonoma near Healdsburg at 96 percent of water supply capacity and Lake Mendocino near Ukiah at 108 percent of target capacity. The two reservoirs hold most of the water delivered by the Sonoma County Water Agency to 600,000 customers in Sonoma and Marin counties.
While rain has taken a break, with no significant precipitation in Santa Rosa since Jan. 29 and no more expected until the middle of next week, forecasters say there is no cause for alarm.
“We still have a lot of winter to go,” said Jan Null, a Saratoga-based consulting meteorologist. He noted that big storms have come in March and April, and it is common to endure a midwinter dry spell.
This year’s El Niño, the strongest one recorded since 1950, peaked around Jan. 1 and is now weakening but still capable of offsetting some the state’s four-year drought, he said.
Sea surface temperatures at the equator, El Niño’s signature, posted the warmest-ever three-month period in November through January, said Null, a former National Weather Service meteorologist who tracks El Niño data.
However, even a “very strong” El Niño — this one just the third in history — is no guarantee of above-average precipitation in California, he said.
The National Weather Service’s Climate Prediction Center said last month, in its most recent report, that “a strong El Niño will weaken (to neutral conditions) during the late spring or early summer,” noting that the exact timing “is difficult to predict.”
The center’s forecast said there’s a decent chance all of California will get above-average precipitation in February through April, with the region north of San Francisco Bay having a 33 percent probability. Central California a 40 percent probability and Southern California a 50 percent chance of extra rain.
Santa Rosa should see continued dry, warm weather through Sunday, said Steve Anderson, a Weather Service forecaster. The daytime high is predicted to reach 72 Tuesday, with temperatures in the low 70s through Friday, according to AccuWeather. The city’s 30-year average high temperature in February is 60.5 degrees, according to Press Democrat records.
Light rain is possible by the middle of next week, he said.
In January, Santa Rosa recorded nearly 11 inches of rain, 36 percent above the 30-year average of 7 inches for what is typically the wettest month of the year.
The region’s warm, dry spell was generated by an unseasonably strong high-pressure ridge that shunted moisture into British Columbia, Anderson said. It will dissipate and is not a revival of the persistent ridge that brought about the drought of the past three winters, dating from 2012, he said.
WHERE WE ARE
Lake levels: Lake Sonoma is at 96 percent of water supply capacity; Lake Mendocino is at 108 percent.
Break from storms: Santa Rosa hasn’t seen significant rain since Jan. 29. Light showers are expected the middle of next week.
Warm weather: Santa Rosa reached 75 degrees Monday, with high temperatures forecast in the low 70s through Friday.
Sierra snowpack: On Monday, the snowpack covered 46 percent of the Sierra at an average depth of 17.5 inches. A month ago, snow coated 73 percent at an average depth of nearly 22 inches.