Wettest January since drought began

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The first month of 2016 was the wettest January in Sonoma County in six years and saw the most rainfall for the period since the start of the current drought, a hopeful sign as the North Coast and the rest of the state struggle to recover from four years of scarce precipitation.

The National Weather Service measured 10.01 inches of rain at its gauge at the Charles M. Schulz-Sonoma County Airport in Santa Rosa during the month of January. That’s more than the previous four January months combined, since the drought began in 2012.

Just before the skies over California dried up that year, 6.77 inches of rain fell in Sonoma County in January 2012.

The next three January months saw almost no precipitation: 0.92 inches in 2013 and 0.1 inches in both 2014 and 2015.

Though this week will see little rain, significant rainfall is expected to continue through February, said National Weather Service forecaster Diana Henderson.

“The (National Weather Service) Climate Prediction Center is still leaning toward it being a wet month,” said Henderson, adding that a strong El Niño continues to be the prime mover behind the current winter rains.

The 10-plus inches of rain that fell in January is far above the 4.61-inch average for the month and represents almost a third of Santa Rosa’s average total rainfall of 30.32 inches.

It also made up more than half the total of 19.45 inches for the current rain season, which started in October.

The season’s rainfall has brought some drought relief, but it will take much more rain and snow — and likely another couple seasons of normal rainfall — before Northern California overcomes several years of drought, said Jack Boston, senior meteorologist at AccuWeather.

The state’s northern and southern regions have experienced two very different winters, he noted.

“Most of the precipitation that has fallen in California has missed Southern California for the most part,” he said, adding that a water temperature generally off the West Coast has kept El Niño storms “tracking a little further north than we thought.”

In contrast, Northern California has received above-average rainfall in the current rain season.

In the past decade, only the first months of 2008 and 2010 saw more rain than this January’s total — 12.25 inches each of those years.

“You’re in pretty good shape up there,” Boston said.

But he cautioned that another above-average rainfall season is not expected next year.

“Don’t expect another El Niño next year; you’re not going to get the big storms you’re getting this year,” he said. “El Niño is expected to go away. It’s starting to weaken slightly. It may actually reverse to a La Niña — the opposite of an El Niño — next winter. If that’s the case, you’re looking at more normal rainfall.”

Meanwhile, local reservoirs are at or near storage capacity levels, according to the Sonoma County Water Agency.

As of Thursday, Lake Mendocino near Ukiah is at 100 percent of its wintertime capacity, and the larger Lake Sonoma, northwest of Healdsburg, is at about 94 percent.

You can reach Staff Writer Martin Espinoza at 521-5213 or martin.espinoza@press democrat.com. On Twitter @renofish.

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