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San Francisco just had its driest February ever

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Feb. 29 isn’t until Saturday, but it can reliably be predicted now that no rain will fall before then in Northern California, making February, 2020 the first time since the 1860s that San Francisco and the Bay Area have had zero rainfall during the month. February typically accounts for about 20% of the average annual rainfall in San Francisco.

We had our infamous Drought in the years between 2011 and 2019, when the State officially declared an end to 376 weeks of below-normal rainfall. San Francisco actually ended up with pretty good rain in the 2018-2019 rainy season, which made people relieved that, finally, we could flush our toilets after #1 and not have to ration our garden-watering or time our showers. In December, 2019, at the start of the new (2019-2020) rainy season, things got off to a great start: nearly 5 inches of rain, well above normal, about 1/4 of our seasonal average. The Tahoe ski resorts exulted, and so did state water officials. January, 2020 also was pretty good for rain, but then came February, and Bam! Nothing. Not a drop, from wine country in the north through the Bay Area and San Jose down to Monterey.

It hasn’t just been dry. For human critters, February has been crazy warm. In the 43 years I’ve lived here, I’ve never seen such glorious weather in the middle of winter. Day after day of sunny, blue skies, super-clean air quality, and daytime temperatures in the high-60s to mid-70s (and 80 or higher in wine country). Keep in mind, San Francisco’s average high temperature in February is just 60 degrees, so we’ve been running 8-15 degrees above. Just to put it in context, it’s as if New York City this February saw a solid month of highs near 60 degrees. That would turn a few heads.

The reason for the aberrant weather is a large, persistent ridge of high pressure parked over the Eastern Pacific. It is effectively blocking storms from reaching Northern California; instead, the jet stream carries them up to Seattle or Southern Alaska or, in a few cases, they meander down to Los Angeles and Arizona. This is precisely the same weather pattern that gave us our last drought.

Meteorologists say it’s too early to predict whether February is just a one-off, or the beginning of a new drought. Supposedly, a little rain is forecast to possibly hit San Francisco this Sunday, but that would be March 1, thus preserving Feb. 2020 in the history books for no rainfall. Despite the dry month, our reservoirs are in good shape after the winter of 2018-2019, so nobody’s panicking yet, although the ski resorts are getting a little antsy.

The backdrop of every low rainfall year in California is, of course, the coming wildfire season. After the infernos of the last four years, nobody in the state is in a mood for another bad burn year. There’s a political dimension to this: Northern California’s biggest electric utility, Pacific Gas & Electric, has been found guilty of (and has admitted to) inadvertently starting most of the big fires of recent years due to faulty equipment and poor maintenance. The company has had to declare bankruptcy, been fined billions of dollars to repay people who lost their homes, and is facing widespread calls to be taken over by the public—a move that is strongly resisted by PG&E’s worker unions.

Water or the lack of it, climate change, wildfires, mudslides, floods—it’s always something in California, and that doesn’t even take into account the earthquakes. The Big One is seriously overdue; everybody knows it; few are ready. I live on the Hayward Fault, which, while less known than the San Andreas Fault, actually poses a much greater risk, since it hasn’t snapped for 152 years. The Hayward runs down from San Pablo Bay (opposite the Carneros wine country) southeast through the densely-populated East Bay: Richmond, Berkeley, Oakland (my home town), Hayward, Milpitas and Fremont, and includes eastern Silicon Valley and north San Jose. On or alongside the Hayward Fault are scores of hospitals, schools, tunnels, dams, nursing homes, freeways, bridges and industrial parks, as well as millions of people packed closely together into cities and teeming suburbs. It’s literally unimaginable what a 7.2 magnitude on the Hayward would do. When—not if—it happens, it will make drought seem like a pesky inconvenience.

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