Just like that, Santa Rosa breaks rainfall record

Not with a deluge but a steady rainfall, the record precipitation total for Santa Rosa was broken Thursday night, officially making it the city’s wettest year since record keeping began in 1902.

The storm brought heavy winds to the North Coast, felling numerous trees and bringing down power lines overnight.

According to the National Weather Service, more than 57.8 inches of rain have fallen since Oct. 1 as of early Friday, enough to swamp the previous record of 55.68 inches in 1983. Friday morning, Charles M. Schulz-Sonoma County Airport had received 2.39 inches of rain over the previous 24 hours, according to NWS meteorologist Anna Schneider.

Nagging precipitation was the theme of the record-setting weather. Since Oct. 1 it’s rained 92 of 188 days in Santa Rosa. For those keeping score, that’s 49 percent of the time.

And more is on the way: Just under half an inch more is expected in Santa Rosa through Saturday afternoon.

During those six-plus months, only twice did more than 3 inches fall, an amount longtime NWS forecaster Bob Benjamin pegged as indicating “significant” precipitation: Jan. 8 and Jan. 18, when 3.58 inches and 3.10 inches fell, respectively.

“The irony is that we’ve had the rainiest season we’ve ever experienced, but the flooding (hasn’t been severe),” Benjamin said. “It’s been dispersed enough to where it hasn’t inundated us. ... We’ve had years with much less rainfall (when we) had some major issues along the Russian or the Napa rivers.”

It’s a sentiment echoed by county weather watchers such as Santa Rosa Junior College meteorology instructor Art Hayssen, who has followed Sonoma County weather since 1971.

Hayssen cited the historic 1986 Valentine’s Day Flood when the Russian River swelled to a record 48.9 feet, forcing more than 1,700 evacuations and causing about $25 million in damage. Yet that rain year of Oct. 1 to Sept. 30 had just 42.5 inches of rain in Santa Rosa - not even close to cracking the top five wettest years in the weather service’s history. For comparison, this winter’s amount of rain, the river peaked at 37.82 feet on Jan. 11, according to the weather service.

“It hasn’t been as devastating as other years with lesser rain, because the rain has been spread out over the whole year,” Hayssen said.

At Sugarloaf Ridge State Park, the near constant rainfall has resulted in springs burbling up where rangers have never seen them before, said park manager John Roney, and the staff is preparing for an epic wildflower season.

This year’s weather has, surprisingly, also resulted in a 3.65 percent increase in park attendance, compared with October 2015 to March 2016 - mostly from visitors interested in checking out the Sonoma Creek waterfall.

“For every visitor the rain chased away, the waterfall attracted a new one, plus more,” Roney said.

Camping, unsurprisingly, is down 16 percent, with February camping - this season’s rainiest month, with 21 days of measurable rainfall - down 50 percent.

Along the Russian River in Healdsburg, Larry Laba, owner of Russian River Adventures, said the strong current forced him to push back his opening day from April 15 to at least April 21, the first time in his 17 years of ownership he can remember having to do that.

“We’ve already canceled out all of our reservations from April 15 through April 21,” he said. “(When we’ll open) depends. We have to watch the river levels.”

Typically, he won’t allow people out on the river unless the flow is 1,000 cubic feet per second or less.

“In the summertime, when the flows are 150 to 200 cfs, you can come down the river no problem,” he said. “But when the river is 1,000 cfs, that’s five times more flow. It provides you with more room to get around obstacles, but it’s moving faster and if you don’t avoid them, you’re going to run into them with more velocity, and (there’s) the possibility of flipping over more easily.”

Bill Patzert, a climate scientist with NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, explained the wet Northern California winter as “a hangover” from last winter’s El Niño. He said if climate models hold true, and the water around the equator remains as warm as it’s been, next winter could prove to be a similarly rainy pattern.

“Beginning in December, it was one North Pacific storm and atmospheric river after another,” he said. “But not in Southern California. In Southern California, we haven’t had nearly the rain Northern California has had.”

For example, since Oct. 1, San Diego has had 48 days of rainfall, and only four days with more than an inch of rain, while Santa Rosa has had 21 days with more than an inch of rain.

The significant statewide rainfall has brought the majority of California out of drought, with just 8.24 percent of the state still categorized as being in drought.

At this time last year, 90.57 percent of the state was in drought, with 31.68 percent categorized as “exceptional.”

The shift away from those conditions begs the question if climate change is the culprit. Patzert said it’s still too soon to say.

But “if you have an early melt of the snowpack, that you might attribute to man-made global warming,” he said.

Staff Writer J.D. Morris contributed to this report. You can reach Staff Writer Christi Warren at 707-521-5205 or ?On Twitter @SeaWarren.

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