Earth Log

Earth Log: Kidney stone of a summer, but it has passed

A Horseshoe Meadows Hotshot watches as brush and trees catch fire in a burn-out operation to fight the Rough fire in September near Kings Canyon National Park
A Horseshoe Meadows Hotshot watches as brush and trees catch fire in a burn-out operation to fight the Rough fire in September near Kings Canyon National Park

It was a long, strange summer in the most brutal of the four drought years. In early October, it’s a good time to look back briefly, but only if you also try to look forward.

The dry time broke a 90-year record for lowest flow in the Kings River. The runoff from the smallest snowpack ever recorded in the Sierra was only 22 percent of average.

Foothill community residents in the Southern Sierra near the Kings River were assaulted by Beijing-like pollution readings from Rough fire soot plumes. The fire has burned tinder-dry forest since July 31 and is not quite fully contained at more than 151,000 acres.

And the number of dry private wells continues to mount in Tulare County. The total was more than 1,800 private wells by the end of September. A sea of bottled water flows through communities such as East Porterville where thousands live without indoor plumbing.

Drought spinoffs are happening in many directions, such as fallowed farm fields and sinking land from groundwater pumping.

But there was an odd twist for air quality, which is supposed to get worse in droughts.

San Joaquin Valley folks breathed easier in July, a month notorious for corrosive air. The Valley exceeded the eight-hour federal ozone standard only 10 times. That’s less than half the usual number, and it is a record.

The Valley also may wind up this year with the fewest number of ozone exceedances on record. The record was set two years ago with 89 days. At this point in October, the Valley has only 75.

It’s always best to remember that the goal is zero, and that even with “only” 75 bad days, the Valley would probably still be the second-worst air basin in the United States this year.

The air here has noticeably improved over the last decade, but don’t be lulled. There still is a big problem with unhealthy air in the Valley’s natural bowl, and the struggle to clean up the pollution will last many more years.

Look forward a little. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency this month set the strictest national eight-hour ozone standard on record – 70 parts per billion, down from 75. What does it mean to shave off 5 parts per billion?

Air district leaders say the Valley will need to become electrified – cars, trains, tractors and a lot of other engines that run on diesel and other fossil fuels. It won’t be cheap. We’re probably talking about billions of dollars between 2017 and 2037.

Keep looking forward. This is the hopeful part: El Niño.

It’s that warm blob of Pacific Ocean water stretching for thousands of miles along the equator. It tends to conspire with the atmosphere and re-engineer global weather, especially when the blob gets warmer, as it has.

El Niño’s weather tinkering often leads to a freight train of winter storms moving steadily at Southern California, meteorologists say. In the two years with warmest El Niño water – the heavy-hitting 1997-98 and 1982-83 seasons – the whole state was battered with storms.

A similar heavy-hitting El Niño has set up in the Pacific. Scientists say it has a 95 percent chance of remaining through the winter. At the same time, nobody can say for sure if it means big storms for the winter, and even a very wet winter wouldn’t end this drought. Winters would have to turn wet for a few years to catch up with the deficit.

Back to the present, which is also hopeful. It is finally October, a time to put a wretched California summer to rest and enjoy a slow turn to a new season.

Mark Grossi: 559-441-6316, @markgrossi