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How bad is the California drought? Very bad


We all know California’s in another historic drought, but until I checked the actual rainfall data, I had no idea how severe it really is.

From the desert southeast to the Pacific coast, on up to the Oregon border and out to the Sierra Foothills, the rainfall amounts are staggeringly low. And keep in mind, it’s June now: there’s not going to be another drop of water falling in California until next October or November, except, possibly, for a wandering summer monsoon that drops a quarter-inch in some rare place. And even that’s unlikely.

Check out these numbers:

Bakersfield: Season to date: 2.77” Normal to date: 6.33”

Los Angeles: Season to date: 5.80” Normal to date: 14.55”

San Diego: Season to date: 4.50” Normal to date: 10.07”

San Francisco: Season to date: 8.91” Normal to date: 23.22”

Oakland: Season to date: 7.61” Normal to date: 20.35”

San Jose: Season to date: 5.32” Normal to date: 15.50”

Eureka: Season to date: 27.25” Normal to date: 46.15”

You can see that rainfall this 2020-2021 season ranges from one-half to one-third of normal. That’s not just low, it’s insanely low. Already, wildfires have been erupting, not big ones—yet—but for them to happen in Northern California in May is shocking. We’ve been lucky because May was unusually chilly, and June is starting out that way too. But the heat waves are coming.

You can also get a sense of the drought’s severity from these flow charts for some California rivers.

The bar graphs compare this year’s flow with those of 2014 and 2015, when California was in the grips of “the two driest years of our driest drought,” according to the California Department of Water Resources. In other words, in 2021, we’re as starved for water as we were seven years ago, at the peak of the last severe drought.

Of course, California may be spared from great conflagrations this year. We may not have those big lightning events that can spark dozens of fires in a matter of hours. We may not have idiots who drop cigarettes in dry tinder. We may not have sociopathic arsonists who get their jollies by setting fires. But in all probability, it’s going to be a bad year. This is why our Governor, Gavin Newsom, announced he’s budgeting two billion dollars for fire prevention this year, doubling the previous amount. Cynics immediately said that Newsom is doing that because he’s facing a recall, but that’s a scurrilous charge. He’s going to win the recall handily—everyone knows it. He’s throwing money at fire prevention because it’s his job to save lives, property and wildlands.



“Let’s face it, it’s over.”

That was the grim prognosis this morning from the T.V. weatherman. He was talking about the 2020-2021 rainy season in California. It’s been dry as a dog’s bone, and warm too. We hit 80 a couple times even here in cool, coastal Oakland.

How dry is it? The normal rainfall in San Francisco for the rainy season (Oct. 1-Sept. 30) is 23.65 inches. This season, we’ve had only 8.72 inches. April has seen no rain at all, and the long-range forecasts predict no rain for the remainder of the month—which is why the weatherman said it’s over. By the time May arrives, we’re entering the Dry Season. So whatever water the State of California is going to need for the next year has already fallen.

And California needs a lot of water, not only for our 40 million people but for agriculture. California supplies 13% of the total cash agricultural receipts in the U.S. It’s the sole producer (or very nearly so) of these crops: almonds, peaches, artichokes, kiwi, pomegranates, olives, dates, pistachios and rice, and in large part accounts for the nation’s greens and other row crops. These commodities not only keep food on American tables, they undergird the California economy. The current drought (which, in retrospect, has to be seen as a continuation of the drought that lasted from 2006 until 2017) threatens the state’s farms, and suggests a revival of the infamous Water Wars that have long plagued the state, as portrayed most dramatically in the movie Chinatown.

Already in the Bay Area, counties are warning residents and farmers to expect strict water controls this summer. For example, Santa Clara County—home to Silicon Valley—asked residents to step up water conservation, and hinted that mandatory water restrictions might become necessary. Last month, the state Department of Water Resources announced severe cutbacks in the amount of water available for the state from Sierra snow melt. The Department released data showing that the percentage of water equivalent in snow this year averages between 29% and 52% of normal, with the driest conditions in the south.

And then there’s the scariest aspect of this water shortage: wildfires. I don’t have to cite statistics. Anyone who has watched the news over the last 5 years knows how devastated California has been by these tremendous conflagrations that wipe out entire communities and destroy human lives. The drought, with its tinder-dry grasslands, can only bring about more and worse fires this year.

When I moved to California in 1978, the state was experiencing one of its worst droughts in history. The first thing I was told, concerning going to the bathroom, was, “If it’s yellow, it’s mellow. If it’s brown, flush it down.” People back then were told not to wash their cars or water their lawns. We dutifully obeyed; the drought ended, and we got through it none the worse for wear. But now, the drought is back with a vengeance. With the current attitude among large segments of the populace of not trusting or listening to the advice, or even the pleading, of government—an attitude exacerbated by Republicans–I wonder if Californians will rally this summer, as we did 43 years ago.

Here comes Winter


The Bay Area—all of California, actually–has had the most exquisite weather for the last 3-1/2 months. I always complain about our “summers” because, let’s face it, “summertime” in San Francisco-Oakland-Berkeley is no bargain. My body longs for warmth, but warm days are rare: Mark Twain’s alleged “coldest winter I ever spent was summer in San Francisco” is most apt.

I mean, once the winter-spring rains cease (which in 2018-2019 didn’t happen until May), doesn’t one have the right to expect a spell of warm weather? However, we almost never get it, what with “June Gloom” and July fogs and winds that bring down a scent of glacial chill from the northwest. I can almost smell the Aleutians which, while 2,000 miles away, seem to heave their icy winds across the unbounded seas straight at us. July, frankly, can be a drag.

September and October have long been celebrated as our best months, weather-wise. But August can be iffy. If August follows July’s lead, August, too, continues the disappointment of no-summer. But in this year, 2019, we had the most beautiful August in my memory, which now spans 40 years of life here. Every day was more perfect than the previous. Temperatures of 80 degrees and more were common, with no humidity, under preternaturally blue skies, and hardly a hint of fog. Then came September, and the loveliness continued. Surely nowhere on Earth had better weather than we, in that now-gone month. In October, the days shortened, but remained glorious: shirtsleeves and shorts weather. This three-month spell of perfection—August, September, October—was intimidating, though, for I knew that it could not continue. Winter must come, finally, with its clouds, cold, winds, rain and, in the hills, snow.

So I greeted November with apprehension. Now here we are, with the month one-third over, and while summer is most definitively gone, the weather has remained tranquil. It’s cold in the mornings—cold for the Bay Area, anyway, with temperatures in the 30s in wine country, in the high 40s here in Oakland. But while the sun grows feebler with each tick of the clock until the equinox on Dec. 21, when it does rise low in the sky in the afternoon, one can take off the outerwear one dons for protection against the morning chill. One of my favorite places to enjoy afternoons is in the outdoor café of Whole Foods, which is wind-protected and gains the full impact of the afternoon sun.

No rain has fallen on us since last Spring. Well, we did have an oddball downpour in September, but it was from the remnants of a Pacific hurricane that drifted up through the Central Valley—not a rare occurrence in late summer or early autumn, but not really indicative of an early start to rainy season. The meteorologists are now saying that there’s no rain in the forecast as far out as they can see, which is about 15 days, so it may be that November is rainless. I knock on wood as I say that: we could have a real drencher by Nov. 30, and, after all, we always need the rain. My intellectual opposition to drought was always in constant battle with my animal love of dry warmth, during the drought years of 2011-2015; whenever it rained, I groaned, and Gus, even more than I, detests rain, and does his best to avoid going out in it. Not that he can: I am, after all, the Boss of this outfit. So he slinks along, tail between his rear legs, his ears droopy, with a hangdog look on his face.

So I’ll enjoy the dry weather as long as I can. December will be here soon enough: if it behaves as it has in the past, December will come howling into town with soaking rains and bone-chilling cold. By December, all hope of Indian summer will be vanquished. There is no Indian summer in December; winter arrives determinedly, planting its feet stubbornly on the land, and not prepared to recede until next May, or even June. And one thing I’ll never be able to figure out (as Mark Twain couldn’t, either): Why does a 44-degree winter day in San Francisco feel so much colder than a 17-degree day in Manhattan? It is, like much else in life, a mystery.

Have a lovely weekend!

Will there be an El Nino? What does it mean?



Despite my Ph.D. in meteorology and the fact that I successfully predicted both the drought and the most recent lottery number*, I have no idea if this El Nino that seems to be brewing in the Pacific will have the desired impact here in dry, dry California, where we’re currently in the midst of a horrible fire season, and the worst months lie ahead.

We were told last year that El Nino was coming and that it could have a positive impact on the drought. And then we ended up with the third driest winter in California’s history.

No wonder everybody got so excited when predictions of a new El Nino started surfacing some months ago. I’ve been watching the media on this, and the drumbeat is getting louder and louder. Now, the San Francisco Chronicle (which has been covering the drought quite closely) is forecasting that this winter’s El Nino will be “worse than ‘97-‘98” and could in fact be a “monster.”

That is great news, but if you really pay attention to these things you know that El Nino, in and of itself, is a very poor indicator of coming precipitation. Just three days ago, the same Chronicle noted that some of the state’s wettest winters have occurred when no El Niño was present, or during the opposite condition, La Niña, in which the Pacific Ocean is cooler than usual,” and they added this kicker: “Fact is, out of 23 El Niño events over the past 65 years, only nine resulted in wetter-than-average winters.”

Still, NOAA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, is bullish. In their most recent update, they predict “a strong [El Nino] event” that will achieve “peak strength” early this coming winter, followed by “a 90% chance that El Nino will continue through [the] Northern Hemisphere winter” and then “last into early Spring 2016.”

What does NOAA think it means for rain? Here’s a map showing the current prediction status for next December, January and February, traditionally California’s rainiest months.


You can see that NOAA is thinking the big rains will be in the far southern part of the state. According to the map, Northern California, from about Mendocino down to San Luis Obispo, might be slightly higher in rain than normal. From SLO down to about L.A. the chance of higher than normal increases, although not by much. It’s not until you get from L.A. south to San Diego and Mexico (where the darker green is) that there’s the greatest chance for significantly higher rainfall.

That’s too bad. The majority of California’s water comes from Northern and Central California’s reservoirs, water tables and Sierra snowpack, so even a ton of rain and snow in the San Gabriels and the deserts will make barely a dent in the drought. Still, one can always hope.

* Actually, none of these claims is true, but it was fun to say them

The Great Drought: A personal reflection



In a few days—April 1, to be exact–California water officials will officially measure the snow pack in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, and I’m predicting the result is going to shock the nation.

If you don’t live here, and especially if you live in the East, where it’s been so cold this winter, you can’t imagine what our “winter” has been like. Except for about ten cold days around Christmas, it’s been Spring-like ever since, well, last Spring. In fact, my local T.V. weatherman recently said, “It’s been Spring-like for the last three years.”

It’s been warm. Flowers bloom all year. Tree fruits, like apricots, are as ripe now, as I write these words, as they normally are in June. Butterflies are everywhere. I haven’t seen any bees yet, but that may be because they’re dying off. Reservoirs are almost empty; ski resorts are bare of snow; groundwater is almost empty in many parts of the state, and rivers and streams already are turning into arroyos secos. The hillsides here in the Bay Area are still green, thanks to some pretty good rains we had in December, but I would imagine they’ll be gold by mid-April.

This Drought Monitor map shows the extent of the drought, which extends throughout western Nevada and southeastern Oregon, on up into western Washington State.


The news is reporting that people are seriously thinking about alternatives to our normal water supply systems, which are ground water and Sierra runoff. There’s renewed interest in desalinizing the Pacific waters. There have been articles about towing icebergs down from Alaska and parking them outside the Golden Gate. And, of course, everybody expects that, sometime soon, Governor Brown will announce the severest water-use restrictions in the state’s history. About time: down in the desert areas of Southern California and Palm Springs, they still have vast lawns of green grass growing on golf courses and private estates. That has got to stop. When I first moved to California, in 1978, at the tail-end of that drought, the message had been given to all the state’s residents concerning toilet flushing: “If it’s yellow, it’s mellow,” the saying went. I think we’re going to have to resurrect that rule.

What this means for grape growers is unclear. Last year, in our third year of drought, there were rumblings of concern, but no panic. Yet you still heard growers saying, “If 2014-2015 is dry, we’re in big trouble.” Well, 2014-2015 is dry.

It could still rain. The truly dry season doesn’t really kick in until late May or June. But nobody is expecting much of anything. The long-range forecast is completely dry, warm and sunny, as it’s been all year. We’ve been averaging 8-10 degrees above normal for our daytime high temperatures for months. I’d love to hear from grape growers and winemakers what your expectations are. How are you dealing with the drought?

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