Dry February drops snowpack below normal, drought pushing toward fifth year

An extremely dry February has lowered the Sierra Nevada snowpack to below average levels, dashing hopes for an end to a drought that has gripped California for the last four years.

The Kings River Water Association reported Friday that unless “significant storm events resume soon and occur into the spring,” the drought will continue into its fifth year.

An El Niño-fueled wet December and January gave many hope that the drought had ended, but February has only brought 0.33 inches in precipitation to the Fresno area. The average for the month is 2.03 inches.

It has rained only two days this month in Fresno – Feb. 17, when 0.04 inches was measured at Fresno Yosemite International Airport, and the next day, when 0.29 inches was recorded.

George Goshgarian, who farms almonds near the Kings River, said he doesn’t expect to receive any runoff water from Pine Flat Lake for the second year in a row.

“It means we completely depend on our pumps for water,” Goshgarian said. “The more pumping you do, the more the water table drops. That’s concerning. When that happens, you’ll have to build a whole new well.”

Goshgarian said that a dry February likely spells doom for the rainy season, as March is normally the much drier month.

Although the drought probably will continue, this winter has been a marked improvement.

State data indicates the current snowpack in the central Sierra Nevada is 90 percent of its normal size as of Feb. 26. The actual snow or water equivalent is 22.3 inches. This number represents about 77 percent of the April 1 average, which is typically when the final snowpack numbers are tallied.

Last year, the central San Joaquin Valley was in far worse shape. On Feb. 26, 2015, the snowpack was at just 19 percent of normal, or around 5 inches of water equivalent.

This February was the driest since 1997, but meteorologist Scott Rowe from the National Weather Service office in Hanford said it is nowhere near the record-setting arid Februarys near the end of the 19th century.

In 1885, Fresno recorded no rain at all in February. It collected only 0.02 inches in 1889 and 0.06 inches in 1896.

Looking forward, there is a 20 percent chance of rain forecast for the Fresno area Thursday. Several storm systems will pass over Northern California in the next few days; Rowe said rain in the central San Joaquin Valley is contingent on those systems dipping over the region.

March typically is the last good month for rain in Fresno. The average for that month is also 2.03 inches. Once April 1 arrives, the skies start drying up. April’s average is 0.95 inches, and May on average records just 0.43 inches.

One hope forecasters have for more precipitation is the El Niño condition that has brought warmer-than-normal ocean water offshore of California. Strong El Niño years like this one have resulted in big rain years in the past.

Rory Appleton: 559-441-6015, @RoryDoesPhonics

Fresno rain this season

9.95 inches: Season to date (Oct. 1, 2015, through Feb. 25, 2016)

7.48 inches: Normal season to date

11.5 inches: Normal for full season

Source: National Weather Service