Drought Bound?

It was a dry Anderson Valley day in late January this year. The morning temperature was crisp, the sun warming, and the light and shadows bright and deep in the forest where I was piling brush. However, as I worked, I realized a couple of things were missing from this winter’s day in Anderson Valley: puddles and mud.

Anderson Valley long-timers know puddles and mud are winter staples. In a region that typically received 40 to 50 inches of rain annually, both stand ready to make life messy as soon as one leaves pavement behind. Feet slide, tires spin, muck splashes, cars and trucks bounce (where there’s a road puddle, there is usually a pothole) and other perilous stuff happens when the soil becomes saturated and the rain keeps coming.

Recent winters in Anderson Valley have not been typical. Annual average rainfall totals have been declining in the valley since the 1990s and four years of drought from 2012 to 2016 made puddles and mud definite rarities. Only the wet rainy season of 2016-2017 brought back the good old days of sloppy conditions and lots of runoff, though older long-time residents will say last season’s rainfall was essentially the norm in the 1950s and 1960s.

While a prediction now may be premature, Anderson Valley – and virtually all of Northern California – appears to be on the cusp of another drought. Anderson Valley has had two or three long dry spells this winter, the most recent being the current two-plus weeks (as of February 9). Rainfall in Anderson Valley is approximately half of normal for this point in the winter and the current northern Sierra Nevada snowpack is 30 percent of normal.

As for weather professionals’ thoughts about rainfall for the rest of the winter and spring, any optimism is guarded, at best. A regional climatologist at the Western Regional Climate Center’s Desert Research Institute noted that similar extended early dry spells often were followed by significant rain and snow in March and April. One meteorologist suggested there may be weather changes coming to break the current dry pattern after February 15. However, a veteran meteorologist commented that no year with a similar extended early snowfall shortfall in the Sierra Nevada has ever finished the snow season with an average snowpack.

Miracles happen, but rarely in weather. Unless Anderson Valley receives lots of rain in March and April, especially in the latter two weeks of April and perhaps extending into May, the valley almost certainly will be dealing with drought during summer and autumn.

From one telling observation, unlike the previous drought, creeks, rivers and aquifers will dry out VERY quickly if a drought comes this year. Despite all the rain last year, the Navarro River in September 2017 flowed at nearly the same miniscule rate as it did in September of 2016, the end of the previous four-year drought. Indeed, one could step across it in some spots near Hendy Woods State Park with a single stride. Our one good rain year has not replenished underground aquifers depleted by four previous years of drought. Dry wells and dry agricultural water sources by mid-summer are a definite possibility if rain doesn’t come in quantity, and soon.

The missing rain, puddles and mud notwithstanding, that late January day in Anderson Valley was a fine one; the Navarro River deep green and rushing, mushrooms pushing up from a dark carpet of leaves, the cool shade of tall redwoods and air so fresh one could almost taste it. We still have nearly three months of the rainy season to go and water could pour from the heavens for days and perhaps weeks. The future is unknown, but the present suggests we may have plenty to worry about when it comes to water this year. Cross your fingers.

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