Did Someone Say 'Drought'?

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A sign alerting customers of Marin County's Inverness Public Utility District to cut water use. Reductions were ordered in July 2020 after a drier-than-normal winter and spring.  (Dan Brekke/KQED )

Y

es, someone did say “drought.”

The current situation report from the U.S. Drought Monitor, for one. The service, which analyzes rainfall and other hydrologic data in its assessments, finds that 96.5% of California is experiencing some level of abnormal dryness. The monitor finds that about half the state is experiencing severe or extreme drought.

My Berkeley backyard rain gauge agrees, having recorded less than half an inch of rain since our water year began Oct. 1. Berkeley’s average rainfall for the period from Oct. 1 through Nov. 30 is about 4 inches.

Of course, that lack of rain stretches far beyond my little patch of dirt. Rainfall totals are far below 50% of normal for the vast majority of reporting stations tracked by the California Nevada River Forecast Center.

Map from NOAA's California Nevada River Forecast Center showing percentage of normal seasonal rainfall received from Oct. 1 through Nov. 30. (NOAA/California-Nevada River Forecast Center)

The outlook for at least the next couple of weeks is dry, dry and more dry.

The good news, if you’re looking for a respite from the bad tidings that seem to break all around us on a nearly hourly basis, is that our rainless spell has left us with a seemingly endless string of gorgeous, sunny, warm-ish days. How can we complain about such gorgeous weather?

But that scant slice of optimistic spin lays only the thinnest veneer on something that, as one clear day follows another, is turning into a distracting if not unpleasant presence.

No rain here at the coast means little or no snow in the mountains. A lack of rain and snow as we head into the heart of what we still like to think of as our rainy season leads to constrained water supplies for human uses and another blow to California’s badly stressed ecosystems and a parched landscape that will be ready to burn.

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Burning has become an immediate concern. With a season of record-setting fires barely in our rear view, parts of the state are looking at a round of extremely windy conditions this week that's prompting PG&E to issue an alert to about 600 customers in the Kern County mountains that power could be shut off preemptively Wednesday night to reduce the risk of starting a wildfire.

Meanwhile, the National Weather Service offices in San Diego, Los Angeles and Hanford have posted red flag warnings for critical fire weather through Saturday. Winds are forecast to gust over 60 mph in some locations coupled with humidity levels of 5% to 10% and temperatures that could get into the 80s. (If December seems outlandish for a dire warning of high fire danger, just think back to the Thomas Fire, which started three years ago this week near the Ventura County town of Santa Paula, burned more than 400 square miles and briefly stood as the largest wildfire in California's recorded history).

But Northern California could be contending with renewed fire weather concerns as early as Sunday. Gusty, dry winds are forecast to arrive in the Bay Area late this weekend, bringing with them an increased risk of wildfires and the possibility of red flag warnings for the North Bay and East Bay hills.

So, with all that dry in the forecast, you want to know where you can find rain? Go north. The high pressure sitting over our part of the West Coast is pushing storm after storm into southeastern Alaska. In fact, the folks in places like Juneau might be ready to trade their rain for a day or two of our menacingly gorgeous days. If only that was the way weather and climate worked.