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Dry January and rain-free forecast puts all hope in a miracle March

There’s the kind of Dry January that follows an overly indulgent holiday season, where you swear off alcohol for the first 31 days of the new year.

Then there’s the kind we just had, where, except for a few errant spits of rain, the skies remained clear for an entire month with no significant rain in sight.

It won’t be the first time January has been dry, from a strictly meteorological perspective. And it’s not the worst thing that can happen, assuming there’s been sufficient rain in advance or in the months ahead.

But here we are, after two critically dry seasons and a nearly rainless January, looking at a February that’s likely to be “dry as a bone,” meteorologists said.

The saving grace was a record storm in late October that gave everyone hope, and enough rain through December to raise season-to-date rainfall totals to 22.06 inches at the Charles M. Schulz-Sonoma County Airport. January’s contribution to that total was a measly 0.61 inches.

Still, the season-to-date total is 119% of the average for this time of year, and it’s more rain than in either of the past two seasons, which run from Oct. 1 to Sept. 30, National Weather Service meteorologist Roger Gass said.

Santa Rosa got just 13.01 inches of rain in all of 2020-21 and 19.35 inches in 2019-20, he said.

But it’s likely not enough unless there’s a substantial turn of luck come March.

The region’s key public reservoirs, lakes Sonoma and Mendocino, are still well below where they should be — just above 60% of their storage targets for this time of year.

And with February looking dry by all accounts, each passing day will draw lake levels down further, Gass said.

“Thankfully, we had that rain when we did,” he said.

From a meteorological standpoint, the current problem is a persistent ridge of high pressure off the coast that has been steering storms to the north, keeping them out of Northern California. While it allowed a few to slide past in December, it’s shifted closer in shore and blocked the state completely since, said Daniel Swain, a climate scientist with the University of California, Los Angeles.

Meteorologists have told water managers with Sonoma Water the ridge may grow even stronger and continue deflecting storms “at least until the end of February,” Principal Engineer Don Seymour said.

In the meantime, early season gains already are diminishing with unseasonably warm temperatures, Swain said. What had been a Sierra snowpack measured at an incredible 160% of average a month ago is now down around 93% “and plummeting,” he said.

A return of dry offshore winds are forecast for Tuesday, which will contribute further to evaporation.

“The drought is still in the medium and long-term context, quite severe,” Swain said, “but at least there’s been enough runoff in the area. That means there’s at least some water.”

But coming all at once, for the most part, is less beneficial ecologically than had the rain been more evenly distributed over time, he said.

The farm roads around veteran dairyman Doug Beretta’s lands west of Santa Rosa are unusually dry for winter, for example, meaning the land is dry enough to let his cows into the fields to graze on pasture irrigated by October’s rain, when they normally would confined to stalls.

But they’re grazing down the grass pretty fast, and without more rain this spring, he’s going to need to request early deliveries of reclaimed water from the city of Santa Rosa, which is already in short supply. He’s also likely to need expensive supplemental feed before the season is out.

Over the past year, he’s reduced his herd of 300 by about 60 head because of the demands of watering and feeding them.

“If this is the end of it (the rain), then we’re going to be in trouble,” Beretta said.

In Two Rock, Don DeBernardi just two weeks ago stopped hauling water to his 700-head dairy operation after spending tens of thousands of dollars trucking in water beginning last May.

But the runoff from the season’s rain so far has only filled his reservoir maybe a quarter full, so he knows he may have to start trucking water again.

“We would need some rain,” to get through without hauling, he said. “We’re probably not going to get much in February, but March usually gives us some rain, because we need the runoff.”

The rainfall has been even lower in the Ukiah region, where the Lake Mendocino watershed does outsized work to meet the needs of upper Russian River users. Only about 15.26 inches have fallen this season so far.

The reservoir is still “in a little bit better shape than it was last year,” said Seymour, the Sonoma Water engineer. “It’s still not great.”

The lake had about 42,863 acre feet of water in it on Monday, more than a quarter more than the 27,850 acre feet it held Jan. 30, 2021. Water managers are cautious about the prospect of it going below 12,000 acre feet because of the silt and sediment that could affect water quality. (An acre foot of water equals 325,851 gallons, or about the amount of water needed to flood most of a football field one foot deep.)

Because of monthly assessments and thresholds negotiated last fall under the water agency’s water rights permit, the water level, deemed “normal” Jan. 1, will switch to “dry” on Tuesday, allowing water managers to ratchet down releases over the next two or three days to half the January rate, allowing some preservation of supply.

Lake Sonoma, which is far larger than Lake Mendocino, still has ample supply for the year, but there are concerns about whether diminished storage could cause warming issues at the Warm Springs Fish Hatchery for instance, Seymour said.

“Certainly the way we stretch that supply is out is we reduce water releases, and there’s going to have to be demand reduction by our water contractors,” he said. “Let’s hope we have a wet March.”

You can reach Staff Writer Mary Callahan at 707-521-5249 or mary.callahan@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @MaryCallahanB.

Mary Callahan

Environment and Climate Change, The Press Democrat

I am in awe of the breathtaking nature here in Sonoma County and am so grateful to live in this spectacular region we call home. I am amazed, too, by the expertise in our community and by the commitment to protecting the land, its waterways, its wildlife and its residents. My goal is to improve understanding of the issues, to find hope and to help all of us navigate the future of our environment. 

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