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So You Think It’s Been Dry & Cold

During the past twelve months (calendar year January 1 through December 31, 2013), I’ve recorded 8.5 inches of rainfall at my nursery in Boonville. The 77-year annual average around here is slightly more than 42 inches. That makes 2013 only about 20% of “normal.” Maybe it’s just me, but shouldn’t we be worried?

I thought it might be fun and of some interest to see how 2013 stacks up against other dry years. The driest calendar year for which there are local records turns out to be 1976 with 16.8 inches. As folks may recall, that was in the middle of the worst drought in California history — remember the huge pipe across the upper deck of the Richmond-San Rafael Bridge taking water from the East Bay to a desperate Marin County? There were other really dry years in the mid-1940s and from 1984 to 1992 with rainfall totals ranging from 22 to 30 inches. But without a doubt, 2013 was by far our driest year in a long time at only 50% of 1976 and at 28 to 38% of other “critically dry” years.

Equally worrisome for me is the dismal start to the 2013-14 rainy season. I recorded only 2.5 inches of rain from September 20th to the end of December. There wasn’t even a trace in October and less than 0.5 inch in December. What’s scary is that by mid-January the season will already be half over!

Monthly rainfall totals from the nearby Caltrans Maintenance Yard dating from 1936-37 and my own daily records since 1978 tell the story. Average September-December rainfall is about 16 inches. The driest year was 1936 with 3.9 inches. A number of other years were also very dry, ranging from 4.5 to 5.5 inches. Incredibly, fall 2013 was only half of that!

With so little rain to warm things up, freezing morning temperatures began early and have continued almost non-stop. Frost hit the nursery for the first time on October 4th. The whole month was unusually chilly, and I recorded a total of 14 light frosts (31° to 34°F.). “Hard” freezes began on November 4thwhen the temperature fell to 26°F. Of the 61 days from November 1st to the end of December, we experienced 40 mornings at or below freezing with 15 of those in the mid-to-low 20s. By early December the weather turned really cold with frigid north winds, and we had five days with lows of 15° to 19°F. Even into early January, morning temperatures are still in the 20s. Will this never end?

Another thing I thought might be interesting is to compare fall 2013 temperatures with past years. Looking over daily lows I’ve tracked since 1978, I found several years in which the fall months were very cold and, by no coincidence, very dry. But 1990 really stands out. That year had the coldest December on record and the fourth driest fall in at least 77 years with only 4.7 inches. Folks who were here then will surely remember the devastating “Christmas Freeze” from December 20th to the 26th and the bitter cold that continued well into the new year. Snow blanketed the Valley floor for more than a week. Temperatures plunged to 12° to 14°F. (Some exposed spots reached 8°F.). Daytime highs didn’t reach 32°F. for several days.

Yet, despite all that, the last three months of 2013 were actually colder overall than the same period in 1990. If we add up the total number of days below 34°F, there were 57 in 2013 versus 44 in 1990. Who would’a thought? Luckily, our lows this time didn’t go much below 16°F for extended periods so physical damage to water systems and other things hasn’t been as bad. Also, neighbors I’ve talked to seem to be dealing with the weather just fine. Here at the nursery we have a large number of dead or dying plants but otherwise are in pretty good shape. Now if it would only rain! To borrow from John Lennon, “All you need is love” — and rain!

(Ken Montgomery is the proprietor of Anderson Valley Nursery in Boonville.)

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