During the driest winter in decades, one silver lining was almost no dreary, scary fog days in the San Joaquin Valley. But that, too, may have been a bad thing.
Sunny, dry days make water disappear in reservoirs as well as on the landscape. One meteorologist says Central California lost far more water to evaporation and plants than it gained in rainfall — an extreme that he never has seen in decades of forecasting.
The water loss was apparent around five key reservoirs in Madera, Fresno, Tulare and Kern counties, said Fresno-area meteorologist Steve Johnson, who forecasts for many farm clients. Fog and overcast usually prevent that kind of loss, he said.
"It's a mistake to just focus on the lack of precipitation," he said. "We went backward on moisture. Even in our worst drought years in the past, that hasn't happened. Forests, foothills and the Valley will be parched this fire season."
It's more pain in this storm season, which has almost passed. Tuesday is the unofficial end of California's biggest rain and snow months, ending a dry time from north to south.
How bad did it get?
Before a storm passed through last week, San Jose and Fresno were 37% of average, San Francisco International Airport was 33%, Bakersfield 28% and Riverside 23%. Among the National Weather Service's summary list of three dozen California cities, not one is close to 100%.
The northern Sierra, the keeper of the state's biggest water bonanza each year, had a tiny snowpack — 13% of its April 1 average at one point last week.
At the state's water crossroads, the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta, authorities are meeting daily to confirm that water projects are covering health and safety needs for nearly 38 million people.
The $45 billion farm industry — much of it in the Valley — will leave several hundred thousand acres of land vacant this summer. Jobless rates are expected to hit 50% in some Valley farmworker towns.
In January, there were 400 wildland fires. Usually, there are no fires to count in that winter month.
At the time, Mark Cowin, director of the state Department of Water Resources, told the media: "The snowpack is far less than any snowpack that we've ever measured even in the state's worst droughts in modern history."
Things improved in February with above average rain and snow. A few storms have passed through in March.
But the U.S. Drought Monitor still shows the center of the state in an exceptional drought. That's the worst classification on the federal monitor — below severe and extreme.
California's forests and wildlands already were dry after two years of drought before this winter. The last big rain and snow months were November and December 2012. The storm spigot shut off in January 2013.
Roger Bales, University of California at Merced professor of engineering and director of the Sierra Nevada Research Institute, said the dry winter combined with temperatures 2 degrees above average means less moisture in the soil and faster evaporation.
"Drier conditions this year mean that much of the precipitation … will be used by the vegetation in mountain forests and grasslands," he said.
Meteorologist Johnson paints a darker picture. He says a lot of precipitation already has evaporated. He calls this season "winter with summer."
His analysis combined rainfall totals and evapotranspiration, which is the sum of water evaporation and plant water use.
He analyzed five reservoirs — Hensley in Madera County, Pine Flat in Fresno County, Kaweah and Success in Tulare County, and Isabella in Kern County. He found that rainfall didn't nearly keep up with the amount of water evaporating from reservoirs and vegetation around them.
At Lake Kaweah, east of Visalia, rainfall was 2.90 inches from Dec. 1 through late March. But evapotranspiration consumed 11.66 inches, Johnson said. It amounts to a staggering 8.76-inch deficit.
Johnson averaged the deficits for all the reservoirs and came up with nearly 7 inches of water loss across four counties.
Johnson said he hears discussions about the state's extreme dry spell mirroring the 1976-77 winter, which was the driest on record in many places. But there was fog and overcast that winter.
He said his research shows Fresno's 1976-77 winter had more than two dozen foggy days. Until this winter, Fresno had been averaging 23 foggy days per winter over the past several years.
But there were only five foggy days in Fresno during the 2013-14 season, according to National Weather Service records. And there were only a few hours of fog each day, according to a Weather Service analysis.
Meteorologist Paul Iniguez of the Weather Service in Hanford broke the news about the city's record-making fog season on Twitter: "Only 18 hours of #tulefog in Fresno this winter, fewest on record."
Firefighting agencies have been preparing since early this year for a long fire season in the mountains. Farmers in the Valley are losing some valuable citrus and almond orchards.
But no one knows yet how bad it could get this summer, Johnson said.
"I think we're looking at a disaster here," he said.
The reporter can be reached at (559) 441-6316, firstname.lastname@example.org or @markgrossi on Twitter.