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Rainfall whiplash: a less optimistic drought assessment after a record-dry January

In mid-December, we seemed set for a great rainfall winter.  A series of storms had dropped 7.75 inches over three weeks, with measurable rainfall fifteen different days of twenty-two and no more than two consecutive rain-free days.  We were ahead of our annual averages, and the winter felt promising: air laden with moisture, hillsides getting greener by the day, and spectacular sunsets due to the frequent clouds.

Fast-forward to early February, and things look less promising.  January was one of the driest on record throughout California, with no measurable precipitation in San Francisco and not much more on the Central Coast.  At Tablas Creek, we got only 0.23 inches for the month, less than 5% of what we would expect in what's normally the wettest month of the year.  Here's how the year has looked so far:

Rainfall chart winter 2014-2015

(Rainfall averages are 1942-2014 as listed on the Paso Robles City Web site, and extrapolated to our wetter microclimate here west of town. My multiplier was 1.77, the ratio between the 25" of rain that long-time residents out in our Adelaida area report as average and the 14.11" average shown on the Paso city site.)

Even though December's rain didn't include the massive storms that often provide the bulk of coastal California's precipitation, we ended the month at 111% of normal winter-to-date precipitation.  One month later, we're at 69% of normal precipitation and things don't look so good.  We have only to look at the winter of 2012-2013 for an example of a seemingly great beginning to the rainy season that petered out dramatically after January 1st:

Rainfall Chart Winter 2012-2013 - Updated

A more hopeful example is last year. The winter of 2013-2014 saw nearly all our rainfall come late in the season, with January totally dry:

Rainfall Chart Winter 2013-2014

And there is potential relief in sight, with an "atmospheric river" of moisture set to hit Northern California this coming weekend.  Whether it will make it this far south is still an open question, but at least it will hopefully bring a pattern change. As nice as it is to sit outside in the sun while our friends and relatives in the northeast are battered by snowstorms, each day without rain is significant: we have roughly 26 weeks to get our 25 inches of rain.  Each rainless week is nearly 4% of our potential lost, and a rainless January puts us in a 21% hole for the winter.

The vineyard certainly doesn't look at first, or even second, glance like it's suffering from drought.  The cover crop is deep, green and lush, to the point that we're having to deploy our animal herd to crisis points where we need to knock back the greenery.  I took a photo last week of our new puppy nearly lost underneath the growth, and it's only grown deeper since:

Sadie in the Cover Crop

The ground underneath is still wet enough that walking through the vineyard leaves you with soggy shoes.  But despite this veneer of green, the drought is no less real.  There is no water in Tablas Creek, nor in most of the other local watersheds.  The reservoirs have barely budged from their historically low levels of last summer.  And ground water remains diminished, though it's less of an issue at a time of year when few wells are in much demand.  The NOAA has kept much of California, and all of San Luis Obispo County, under its "Exceptional Drought" category, barely budging from the beginning of the rainy season:

20150127_CA_trd

 

The next few weeks will be critical if we hope to climb out of this rainfall deficit we're in. A wet February would build on the base we got in December and if not provide macro-level drought relief, would set the stage for a more or less normal growing season.  A dry February means we're almost certainly into year four of this historic drought.

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