Bone-dry California set to receive needed relief

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Ryan Adamson
·5 min read
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An abnormally dry winter and spring caused portions of the West to fall into the throes of a significant drought. The good news is that precipitation is on the way, but the bad news, AccuWeather forecasters say, is that what's coming won't be enough to mitigate long-term drought and wildfire concerns.

Amid heightened concerns about the ongoing dryness, California Gov. Gavin Newsom declared a drought emergency for two Northern California counties Wednesday while he stood in the dry bottom of Lake Mendocino, The Associated Press reported. The emergency declaration is for Mendocino and Sonoma counties, but Newsom said a bigger drought declaration could be issued in the coming weeks. Lake Mendocino is a large reservoir located about 150 miles northwest of Sacramento. Currently, the lake is only at 40% of normal capacity, according to the AP.

Separate from the drought emergency declaration, Newsom ordered state agencies to take immediate action to bolster drought resilience and to prepare for impacts on communities, businesses and ecosystems.

"California is facing the familiar reality of drought conditions, and we know the importance of acting early to anticipate and mitigate the most severe impacts where possible," Newsom said in a statement.

California Gov. Gavin Newsom stands on a dry area of Lake Mendocino on Wednesday, April 21, 2021. (Photo/Office of the Governor of California)

Nearly 50% of California is in a state of extreme drought, while 85% is considered to be under a state of severe drought, according to the United States Drought Monitor.

The lack of rain and mountain snow has been further exacerbated by higher-than-normal temperatures this month.

"Recently, record highs have been challenged or exceeded while rainfall totals have been only a fraction of their normal values," said AccuWeather Senior Meteorologist Mike LeSeney.

Drought conditions in California as of April 23, 2021.

In April, California typically experiences much lower rainfall than prior months. Farther north, April is usually still a fairly wet month.

For example, Seattle normally receives 2.71 inches of rain in April. However, a mere 0.31 of an inch has fallen this month. Farther south, even less rain has fallen in Portland, Oregon. The city averages 2.73 inches of rain in April, but only 0.09 of an inch has fallen so far.

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Although it has been dry this month, enough rain fell over the coastal Northwest in prior months to keep drought to a minimum. This has not been the case farther south and east.

Downtown Los Angeles received a trace of rain back in February, a far cry from the normal amount of 3.80 inches. Less than an inch is typical in April, and no rain whatsoever has fallen so far.

A short-lived change in the pattern will occur in the West this weekend and early next week.

"There will be a brief respite from wildfire risk this weekend and next week as a series of storm systems aimed at the Pacific Northwest will bring rain chances and cooler weather," LeSeney stated.

While precipitation will initially be aimed at the Northwest Saturday, the rain and snow chances will extend into Oregon and California by Sunday and Monday. This could give California cities such as Sacramento, Fresno, Los Angeles and San Diego their first measurable rainfall since March. However, there is a caveat.

"This will certainly be good news for fire crews, but, unfortunately, the rain will not be enough to overcome the staggering rainfall deficits," noted LeSeney.

There could also be some heavier downpours that are accompanied by small hail and some thunder and lightning. However, with the increased moisture and rainfall, as well as the cooler air, any lightning isn't expected to lead to a greatly increased fire threat.

As precipitation moves into much of Nevada, a few rain and snow showers are possible. However, precipitation is not expected to amount to very much at all.

The worst drought conditions are currently centered over Nevada, Utah, Arizona and New Mexico.

After a few dry days during the middle and later part of next week, yet another opportunity for wet weather could arrive as May begins.

"We are seeing signs that southward undulations in the jet stream will continue to develop over the Pacific Ocean and pivot toward the West Coast," AccuWeather Lead Long-Range Meteorologist Paul Pastelok said.

Pastelok said that the pattern is not consistent enough to make a definitive call on the frequency of any rain or snow slated to impact the West. The lack of late-season rain and snow will have effects further down the road.

The arid conditions have resulted in little new vegetation growth this spring in California, including around the Santa Cruz mountains. That's raising concerns for experts that another dangerous wildfire season could be ahead, especially since drier fuel for wildfires can mean more erratic wildfire behavior, AccuWeather National Reporter Bill Wadell reported.

Waddell spoke to Craig Clements of San Jose State University Fire Weather Research Laboratory. Researchers from San Jose State recently found that moisture content levels in vegetation samples were the lowest in a decade.

"That's kind of what we're anticipating is these plants will be in critical condition not in October or September, but likely July," Clements told Wadell. "We might have bigger fires earlier in the season than we typically would if we had more of a wet year. "

Very little rain tends to occur in California during May, even in northern areas. On average, Los Angeles and San Diego normally pick up 0.12 of an inch of rain with 0.47 of an inch in San Francisco and 0.68 of an inch in Sacramento. The central and northern Sierra Nevada tend to squeeze out some moisture in May with an average of 1.07 inches at Lake Tahoe, California.

"The return of warmer, drier weather will once again bring high risks for wildfires as we head into the summer," LeSeney cautioned.

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