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What's the chance for a 'normal' rain year now? Grim, if history is a gauge

Paul Rogers, The Mercury News on

Published in Weather News

"There's a reason they call it a Miracle March," said Bill Patzert, who worked for 35 years as a research scientist and oceanographer at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena. "That's because it doesn't happen that often."

"Miracles are hard to find," he added. "There are plenty of them in the Old Testament, but there aren't that many in California when it comes to water. I wouldn't be betting what's left of your 401K on any miracles."

The rainfall totals from last July 1 through Jan. 31 are not dismal. They just aren't big enough, history shows, to get to a 'normal year,' by June 30, which Null defines in his research as the average rainfall between 1981 and 2010 in each area.

In San Francisco, for example, this is the 49th driest winter rain season through January back to 1849. Only two seasons this dry or drier have ended the full season with at least normal rainfall.

For San Jose, where records go back to 1892, there were 4.81 inches of rain from July 1 to Jan. 30, or 55 percent of normal. That makes this winter the 32nd driest season through January. But no seasons in San Jose that have been this dry or drier have ended with at least normal rainfall.

Los Angeles is worse off. LA has received only 1.96 inches, or 25 percent of normal, for this time of year, making this winter the 11th driest season through January. No seasons that have been this dry or drier in LA at this point in the winter have ended with at least normal rainfall.

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After suffering through the worst drought in the state's recorded history from December 2011 to March 2017, California residents, water managers, farmers, fire chiefs, fisheries biologists and ski resort owners are jittery. The big fear: What if last winter's soaking storms -- the deluges that drove Gov. Jerry Brown to announce an end to the drought emergency last April -- were just a one-year fluke and the state is heading back into another drought?

"We had one really good atmospheric river last month," said Mike Anderson, California's state climatologist with the Department of Water Resources. "I got almost three inches of rain at my house in Davis. That was pretty exciting. But ever since then in the north we've only had a few little storms without much water vapor, and the south really hasn't had anything.

"The possibility of getting back to average this winter is pretty slim," he said. "We need to make conservation a way of life and be prepared for dry years when they show up."

Meanwhile, the Sierra Nevada snowpack, the source of one-third of the California's water, is at just 24 percent of the historic average. Lack of storms, and hot temperatures have put it at levels last seen during the drought.

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