Fresno is in the peak of its rainy season, but there is no rain in the forecast. The Sierra snowpack has fallen below normal levels for this time of year. The state’s three largest reservoirs remain far below capacity.
Whither El Niño?
A winter season that began with considerable promise toward breaking the drought has given way to a staggeringly dry February. Despite heavy rain in January, Fresno is now well short of what it got at the same point in 1983 and 1998, the last two major El Niño winters.
Compounding California’s water woes, residents have lagged recently on water conservation. The State Water Resources Control Board reported Thursday that California’s urban water districts missed their conservation mandates in January for the fourth month in a row. Cumulative savings for California since June, when conservation ordered by Gov. Jerry Brown went into effect, have now slipped below the governor’s 25 percent mandate.
“We can’t count on El Niño to save us,” Felicia Marcus, the state’s chief drought regulator, said Thursday. “February has been a bear, with no disrespect to bears … . We’re hoping for a miracle March and an awesome April.”
Fresno has received just 0.33 inches so far in February. The average for the month is 2.03 inches. And there’s no rain in the forecast for the next seven days.
But experts such as Bill Patzert, who tracks the climate at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in La Cañada Flintridge, said the dry spell doesn’t mean El Niño has run its course.
In the 1983 El Niño winter, for example, “the big show really didn’t happen until March and April,” he said. “I’m still holding out hope.”
Jan Null, a private consultant with Golden Gate Weather Services in Saratoga, agreed.
“It’s possible there’s another shoe to drop,” he said. “There is still a lot of warm water out in the Pacific,” Null said. Warmer-than-average waters in the Pacific are the hallmark of El Niño.
Null said this year’s winter is yet another reminder that El Niños are unpredictable and any long-range weather forecast is suspect. The nexus of warm water in the Pacific is farther west than usual this year. That is a factor in determining where the rain will fall. Often, El Niño brings heavy rain to Southern California; this year, it’s been rainier in Northern California, and portions of the Pacific Northwest have gotten record precipitation.
“We don’t know all the answers,” Null said. “This has sort of become the poster child that all El Niños are different.”
Historically, California’s significant multi-year droughts have ended when statewide precipitation totaled about 150 percent of average, according to the Department of Water Resources. The current drought, in its fifth year, is believed to be the worst on record. So far, rain in Northern California is at 105 percent of average, while the snowpack has fallen to a statewide average of 91 percent.
While precipitation this winter is a major improvement over the past four years, “it’s only average now,” said the National Weather Service’s Michelle Mead. “We need it above average to make a dent.”
The state water board has extended the urban conservation mandates, which were due to expire this month, through the end of October. But the extended regulations relax the conservation mandates for many inland communities, where hot weather makes it harder to keep lawns and trees alive.
Water board officials defended the modified regulations Thursday, but said they’ll take a fresh look at the standards once they have a better idea of how much precipitation the state receives this winter.
The January conservation numbers showed Californian cities cut water use by about 17 percent compared with the same month in 2013. That was the worst performance since mandated cuts began last June, and it means cumulative water savings from June through January have fallen to 24.8 percent. That’s two-tenths of a point below the 25 percent figure ordered by Brown last spring.
The water board said it isn’t surprising that savings rates have slipped. Sprinklers have largely been shut off and Californians are having to eke out savings by taking quicker showers and flushing toilets less often. The results “are still worthy of considerable respect and praise,” Marcus said. “We’re going to be close enough to 25 percent to declare victory.”
Valley water conservation
Every central San Joaquin Valley supplier that reported data for January missed their conservation target – and most missed their cumulative goal since June.
Cumulative Pct Saved (June-Jan. vs. 2013)
Percent Saved (Jan. '16 vs Jan. '13)
Bakman Water Co.
Pinedale County Water Dist.
Source: State Water Resources Control Board