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How dry was California in 2013?



It’s official: 2013 was the driest year ever in recorded California history.

Here are some statistics for selected cities. The number represents the percentage of normal seasonal rainfall that has fallen so far during this year’s rainy season. (Figures courtesy of San Francisco Chronicle)

Bakersfield: 16.7%

Eureka: 12.5%

Los Angeles: 6.4%

Oakland: 7.7%

Sacramento: 8.6%

San Diego: 21.7%

San Francisco: 8.7%

San Jose: 9.8%

Santa Rosa: 6.2%

Napa City, meanwhile, had only 22.7% of its normal yearly precipitation average, according to the Napa Valley Register, making 2013 “the driest year since reliable records started being kept nearly a century ago in Napa.”

Granted, the 2013-2014 rainy season still has many months to go. But we’re getting off to a bad start, and people are scared.

The numbers clearly are unsustainable, and reflect the fact that the drought is statewide and not merely regional. All previous drought records, dating back to 1850, have not only been surpassed, but pulverized. “The official drought map of California looks as if it has been set on fire and scorched…”, a reporter wrote in the San Jose Mercury-News.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein in early December asked Cal. Gov. Jerry Brown to declare a drought emergency, an action Brown so far has resisted taking, although a week after Feinstein’s request, he did form a task force to study the issue. Some municipalities aren’t waiting for statewide action. The city of Folsom on Dec. 23 mandated a 20 percent rationing order. Three days later, Sacramento County asked some residents to reduce water consumption of 20 percent. In Sonoma County, the County Water Agency has asked permission from the state “to slash flows from Lake Mendocino to the Russian River,” in order to keep the reservoir’s dwindling water level from falling even more.

Other cities are expected to enact similar water-saving mores in January.

The American Geophysical Society announced that California, and large parts of the West, may be experiencing a “megadrought” that could last for decades. They released this drought map


drought map

showing the extent of “severe” and “extreme” drought, with the worst areas centering on California and northwestern Nevada.

What impact could the drought–if it continues through the rest of the winter and spring–have on California wine? Vintners fear there won’t be enough water to spray for frost protection during the crucial early budding season. And there won’t be enough water for vine irrigation next summer, especially if we have heat waves. This enforced dry-farming probably means lower crop levels, especially compared to the last few years. Catastrophically dry conditions could spark massive wildfires that take out vineyards.

Is the drought related to climate change? I’m not prepared to go that far.

  1. Matt Mauldin says:

    No rain in the 30 day extended forecast in Santa Barbara County.

    Very interesting read at Steve, you think relating the long term drought trends in the west to climate change is premature?

  2. Matt: I tend to stay away from discussions about climate change, as I’m hardly an expert.

  3. Matt Mauldin says:

    Fair enough Steve. At any rate, I’m afraid it’s going to be a long 2014 in CA when it comes to the subject to water… viticulture or otherwise.

  4. Some folks with shallow wells next door to new vineyard plantings in Sonoma County can little afford a drop in the water table from irrigating young vines. This was an issue before the drought, only promises to raise tempers.

  5. The Saint says:

    We in Mendocino are really screwed if we don’t get some rain soon. We were just informed from the Redwood Valley Water District that if we do not get some rain in January, we may not have any water to run our winery. Our water comes from the Russian River and Lake Mendocino. As we know, it take about eight gals of water to make one gal of wine. Also, we have the most frost in our vineyards of anywhere in California and water is vital for frost protection. This lack of rain could create a major wine shortage in California.

  6. Jerry of South Dakota says:

    “As we know, it take about eight gals of water to make one gal of wine.”

    Saint, interesting. Mind explaining where the waste of 7 gallons of water/gal of wine goes?

  7. Dear Saint: Not good news! Let’s hope the pattern changes soon.

  8. Stephen Pavich says:

    Farmers have been harping on a state water plan for the last 6o years. Ever since Jerry Browns father Pat Brown had the master plan for California’s water future. But that has been trashed and burned by special intrest groups like Fish and Game, enviormental groups, major cities, Democrates, anti-farm and business groups, academics, and anti-growth advocates. Pull Pat Browns map of California’s water future out and do it California. It will supply California’s water needs for the next 100 years. It will also make California into an Agriculture “Giant”. 100 billion in gross sales instead of 38 billion.

  9. I believe we have been in a drought since 1976 in CA. If you compare the 35 years previous to 1976, back to the dust bowl drought, you see a consistency of rainfall. We have been in boom and bust rainfall cycle since 1976 and our current conditions are nearly identical to 1990 and the big December cold/dry spell. Everyone needs to hunker down and accept this is no short term situation.

  10. Water is increasingly becoming a scarce resource. Both because of increasing demand, but also of shifting supply (the water is going somewhere – just not where it used to go).

    I live in Texas where we’ve been dealing with this level of drought since about 2009. I really feel for all of CA, as that Drought Monitor picture – with the red of the Drought Level 3 (extreme) falling over so much of the central state. And those rain % figures are pretty sobering as well. It reminds me of what Texas went through – we got to 80% of the state in Exceptional Drought,level 4, in 2011 (according to the LA Times). We’ve been praying for rain ever since.

    I certainly hope CA doesn’t get that bad.

    I just read that Lake Mendocino has curtailed water release into the Russian River…

  11. Greetings for the New Year, Steve,
    I noted you didn’t mention the Paso Robles area re: rainfall. 6.5 inches at Cerro Prieto in the foothills of the Santa Lucia. Average is 24″, and 2010 was 52″, followed by 2011’s 54″. Besides that those two years were nasty cold. Great for Pinot and Sauv Blanc tho. 2012 back to 20″ and then 2013 we are at only 25% of normal. 2014 season = zilch.

    Additionally, we have the added man made drought on Paso’s East side due to the planting of 8000 new acres of vines last year, which are irrigated from the massive Paso Robles aquifer. For years there has been an ongoing discussion of “what if” the vineyards and wineries just hogged all the water. Well, it happened this summer and many long time E. side residents and pensioners have “lost” their 100-120 ft wells. The 4 wineries that put in the new 8000 acres of vines have provided the proverbial straw. A number of friends, former patients, and ag-related businesses( horse and cattle ranching) have had their wells go dry. The wealthy few can just re-drill to a depth of 450-500 feet,(and that is a very expensive well), but many of those residents living there for decades, have had to sell or move. The value of properties with no water obviously falls, so it has been a double hit for some.

    San Luis Obispo’s Board of Supervisors quickly enacted restraining legislation re: well drilling on Paso’s E. side: one in, one out…or a zero sum game for any further wells.(Keep in mind this is E. side only). So not only are we in the grips of a major league drought, but we now have large wineries responsible for loss of many older wells on the E. side. I guess you could say bad timing on the part of the 4 large wineries who planted the 8000 acres, but it was a matter that was going to come to a head at some point in time. The wine/grape industry has completely revitalized Paso Robles. It also has proven that nothing lasts forever…in this case water. In spite of the drought, we have a morbidly fascinating problem to resolve. You can guess the two sides. For more on this, I just finished a blog on Paso water developments at

    As of one week ago, we have begun watering vines, in that they are now one year behind on water, and this year to date we are at .01″. Worse, the long term forecast is for more dry weather. Compared to friends and farmers on the E. side of Paso, however, our problems are substantially less. Oh, and yes I have checked our water level for the vineyard well…120 feet…same as last year. Knock on wood.

  12. Napa is about 75% below normal as well. Although Lake Hennessey and Napa’s own resources are still ample at this point so irrigation restictions for the remainder of the year should be minimal but a drought that continues through bud break could really tighten things down and yields will certainly be off. Freeze damage to the thirsty young vines especially hillside plantings is primary concern at the moment.

  13. Bob Henry says:


    Addressing your question to The Saint on accounting for those water “waste” numbers, see the 2009 Wall Street Journal article titled “Yet Another ‘Footprint’ to Worry About: Water.”


    Citing the article on how much water it takes to make:

    (1) beer (one print takes 20 gallons);
    (2) coffee (one cup takes 35 gallons);
    (3) soda pop (one 2-liter bottle takes 132 gallons);
    (4) beef (one hamburger takes 630 gallons)

    Right now, our uncommonly warm (80 degrees on Christmas) drought condition in California is “good” for tourism in the cities (no rain to chase them away), and bad for tourism in our mountain ski resorts.

    But come the Spring, California’s governor will be forced to impose draconian water conservation measures as the snow pack in the Sierras will not lead to sufficient melt-off spring water for our farms and urban centers.

    California has “in barrel” two stupendous vintages — 2012 and 2013 — assuring future sales revenue and cash flow for wineries.

    But the 2014 vintage will be imperiled without rainfall. “Dry-farming” will take on a whole new meaning in the wine country.

    ~~ Bob

  14. Bob Henry says:


    “(1) beer (one PINT takes takes 20 gallons)”

    ~~ Bob

  15. Hi Steve.

    I’m sure folks in America will love to know about this, but how about doing the same as in Europe? Just plain forbid irrigation. Make it unlawful. Leave nature to set the dynamics for price.

    So what if some wineries won’t harvest a thing in a given year? People in europe sometimes face the same fate and the good ones know whenever the get a nice wine again people are going to queue up to buy whatever they produce (barolo, langhe, brunello, grand cru classes…)

    I think these farmers, winemakers and the sort can be eligible for extremely affordable ‘crop’ (as they say in the midwest) insurance. Leave the work for nature and let the tax payers money work for them if an insurable loss occurs.

    And let the then available water be used for more really useful purposes.


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