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Huge California Precip Deficit

Bryce Anderson
By  Bryce Anderson , DTN Senior Ag Meteorologist
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Even as U.S. row crop harvest gets into gear--the historic drought in the Far West shows no sign of letting up just yet. Following is the text of a recent article in Climate Watch magazine, written by Tom DiLeberto, which delves into the topic of just how large the precipitation deficit is in California. --Bryce

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In January, after a series of rain events the previous month in California, I wrote an article using analysis from my Climate Prediction Center colleague Rich Tinker that described how much rain/snow was needed by the end of the California water year (the end of September) to get California out of its precipitation hole.

The answer was a lot of precipitation. It would have taken near record amounts of rain across the agriculture-dominated central California – the San Joaquin Valley – to bring the most recent four year period out of the driest 20 percent of years on record. Flash forward to September and those rains did not happen last year. In fact, California remains extremely dry.

The US Drought Monitor, released September 8, has 46 percent of the state under the most extreme drought category (D4-Exceptional Drought). Over 97 percent of the state is experiencing some degree of drought. Only areas in far southeastern California have received enough rain to simply be abnormally dry and not under drought.

So what will it take for the upcoming water year to put a big dent into California’s precipitation deficits?

The answer is a lot of rain. As of the end of August, California is running 5-year precipitation deficits (starting in October 2011) of 8 inches in the dry southeast to almost 50 inches along the north coast. In California, four year rainfall amounts (2011-2014) have been between 54-75 percent of normal during that time frame. To put the deficits into another perspective, every region in California is missing at least a year’s worth of precipitation. In fact, the south coast of California is missing almost two years’ worth of rain (1.82 years to be exact). This deficit isn’t so much a hole as a giant chasm.

One measure used by the U.S. Drought Monitor team to declare drought is whether precipitation totals are in the bottom 20 percent of the record. For five-year precipitation totals (October 2011 – September 2016) to get out of the bottom 20 percent of records dating back to 1928, precipitation totals from October 2015 through September 2016 must exceed 135-160 percent of normal in northern California, 160 percent of normal in the dry southeast to 198 percent of normal in the San Joaquin Valley. This is a ton of rain/snow.

In order for rains during the 2015-2016 water year to be 198 percent of normal in the agricultural-center of the state—the San Joaquin Valley—the upcoming water year would have to be the wettest on record. And that is just to get five year precipitation deficits out of the bottom 20 percent! The only region of California that would not have to have a top-10-wettest water year since 1928 is the north coast. They would only need the 11th wettest October-September.

For these regions to bring five year totals to the 50th percentile—the middle of the pack—every region in California would need record-breaking amounts of rain. The south coast of California would have to receive precipitation over 300 percent of normal (nearly 53 inches of rain)! But hey, that’s only a mere 14.95 inches higher than the current record for wettest water year ever.

The San Joaquin Valley would have to break its previous water year record by 18 inches! Even the region closest to average in California (the north coast) would have to see precipitation totals over 17 inches higher than the previous water year record.

This analysis is a relatively basic view on what constitutes “drought” or “drought recovery.” Drought in California is about much more than the total amount of rain falling from the sky. How long and hard it falls, whether it comes as rain or snow, and how resilient various ecosystems are to such extended stress are other factors that we have to take into account when we talk about drought recovery.

Explaining this nuance via email, California State Climatologist Mike Anderson wrote that as far as surface conditions go, “We need sufficient rainfall to replenish used storage in the surface reservoirs and to begin to restore lost groundwater systems, and we need to have a healthy snowpack to deliver runoff in the spring and summer. Looking at past years that ended multi-year droughts and comparing their characteristics, they ended up being years that had somewhere in the ballpark of 150 percent of average precipitation and about 150 percent of average snowpack.”

If there is any “good” news in this post, it would be that for many of the regions in central and southern California, the wettest water years on record were tied to El Nino events. And 2015 is in the midst of one of the strongest events since 1950. As such, the latest seasonal precipitation forecast from the Climate Prediction Center for the upcoming December-February period is what you would expect to see during an El Nino year: an elevated chance for above-average rains across the central/southern parts of the state. Rains that would help alleviate some of the deficits that have been built since 2011.

The jury is still out, though, on northern California. In the past, the connection between wet winters and El Nino has been less reliable in the northern part of the state than the southern part. But according to a new analysis by the NOAA Drought Task Force, the odds for a wet winter across the entire state improve the stronger the El Nino event is, and the 2015-16 event is currently forecast to remain strong through winter.

Regardless, it is important to remember that forecasts are about probabilities, not guarantees. While it seems like this winter could see above-average rains, the name of the game in California is still to conserve water. But maybe make sure you have that umbrella ready, too.

The full article is at this link:…



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H. Clay Daulton
9/30/2015 | 7:44 PM CDT
Reaction: Bad luck seems always to be followed by more bad luck. Now, fate, prove me wrong. ---A central San Joaquin Valley cattleman