Extreme drought poses far-reaching threat throughout SLO County

dsneed@thetribunenews.comJanuary 25, 2014 

San Luis Obispo is in the grips of an unprecedented and extreme drought. For many parts of the county, 2013 was the driest year on record and no rain has fallen since Jan. 1.

For example, the Paso Robles Airport received only 1.92 inches of rain last year, which is 15 percent of normal, according to the National Weather Service.

The combination of almost no rainfall and unseasonably warm temperatures throughout the winter have left the landscape parched and the fire danger extreme. Groundwater levels are dropping, air quality is deteriorating and ranchers are facing the loss of entire cattle herds for lack of forage.

On Jan. 17, Gov. Jerry Brown declared a state of emergency due to the drought. farmers, Two days earlier, San Luis Obispo County was one of 27 counties in the state to be declared a natural disaster area by the U.S. Department of Agriculture due to the drought.

No relief is in sight.

Long-range forecasting by the National Weather Service calls for drier than normal conditions through spring. And time is running out – typically about half of the state’s precipitation occurs in December, January and February. Even cool weather and fog would help. But temperatures in San Luis Obispo have been breaking records by reaching into the low 90s in recent weeks.

“We essentially haven’t had any rain since last spring,” said San Luis Obispo Cal Fire Chief Rob Lewin. “It’s just very strange and difficult for us. We desperately need a wetting rain.”

Increased fire risk

Topping the list of drought concerns is fire danger. Although it is the middle of winter, California firefighters are battling blazes near Los Angeles and in the Sequoia National Forest.

“This is my 35th fire season and we’ve never had a fire season that has continued into January and now February,” Lewin said. “If you closed your eyes and opened them and someone told you it was August you would believe them.”

Hillsides countywide that would normally be emerald green are a dull grayish brown. Even hardy native plants, adapted to drought conditions, look sickly or dead. Dust eddies rise up from barren pastureland devoid of livestock.

During the height of the summer fire season, Cal Fire in San Luis Obispo County has 67 seasonal firefighters. Today, 21 are still on staff and 11 more will be brought on Feb. 1 if the county does not receive any rain, Lewin said.

These firefighters are staffing five wild land fire engines and the agency’s air attack base in Paso Robles remains in operation. Normally, it would close by November.

“We are in a continuous, never-ending fire season this year,” Lewin said. “Our people are not getting any relief; we are working them and working them.”

Ranchers, farmers struggle

Agriculture has also been severely impacted.

Hardest hit have been cattle ranchers who are either spending money buying feed or selling off their herds because they cannot afford feed. Those who decide to sell off their herds face the slow, multiyear task of building their herds back up once the rains return. Others may decide it is not worth the time and expense.

“We are definitely in uncharted territory,” said Aaron Lazanoff, Cal Poly’s beef manager. “It’s never been this dry.”

Other crops are hurting as well. Some avocado and citrus growers are trucking in water to keep their trees alive. Extended drought also causes salts to build up in the soil, which can be damaging to many crops including vineyards, the county’s most lucrative crop.

“We are seeing a fair number of orchards with burn to their leaves due to salt,” said Mary Bianchi, horticulture farm advisor with the UC Cooperative Extension office in San Luis Obispo. “That means additional irrigation to push the salt down below the root level.”

Stress on groundwater

Additional irrigation usually means more pumping from underground aquifers. However, groundwater basins throughout the county are reaching record lows.

The county’s most widely publicized case is the Paso Robles groundwater basin, which is in a state of crisis. County supervisors have passed an emergency ordinance that prohibits any new pumping from the basin unless it is offset by an equal amount of conservation.

The aquifers beneath Nipomo and Los Osos are also in decline and Cambria has chronic water shortages. The Nipomo aquifer was 30 percent lower this past spring than the spring of 2012 and is the lowest since recordkeeping began in 1975.

Pumping from these aquifers is part of the problem, but extreme dry conditions are exacerbating the crisis, farm officials say.

On the bright side, the county’s reservoirs are in fairly good shape, said Dean Benedix, utilities division manager with the county Public Works Department. Levels in Lake Nacimiento and Lake San Antonio, both operated by Monterey County, are very low, but San Luis Obispo County’s reservoirs are faring better.

Lopez Lake, a key water sources for the Five Cities, is at 57 percent and Whale Rock Reservoir, a backup water source for the City of San Luis Obispo, is at 56 percent. Santa Margarita Lake, another San Luis Obispo water source, is just below 40 percent. However, this lake has a large watershed and could fill up in a week if the county gets a good soaking.

“We are not in as critical a situation as some other agencies are, but if we don’t get rain next year we are in real trouble,” Benedix said.

Deteriorating air quality

The extreme dry conditions are also degrading air quality, particularly in the South County. Air pollution officials are reporting an increase in particulates, which are bits of dust or smoke small enough to be inhaled and become lodged deep in the lungs.

Multiple scientific studies have linked high particulate levels with diseases including asthma, emphysema, lung cancer and heart disease. Young children and adults with existing respiratory and heart conditions are particularly at risk.

The increases are mostly in fine particles that are 2.5 micrometers (PM 2.5) or less. Such particles are 30 times smaller than a human hair and most often come from vehicle exhausts.

“We’ve recorded many more days of elevated PM 2.5 levels in the South County this winter than is typical for this time of year and have had to issue moderate air quality index warnings for that area nearly every day for the past few months,” said Larry Allen, county air pollution control officer.

Alerts have also been issued for Paso Robles and Atascadero.

Drought exacerbates particulates because the dry, stagnant conditions make it easier for dust to become airborne and stay aloft. Conversely, rain tends to remove particles from the air.

“This situation is unlikely to improve until we get some rain to help cleanse the air and keep the particles on the ground,” Allen said.

Grim forecast

All of this bad drought news has left weather watchers hoping for another Miracle March.

At this time in 1991, the county was experiencing its last major dry spell. Then in late February and March, the rains began and dumped more than 10 inches of precipitation, saving the county from a prolonged drought.

Unfortunately, the chances of another Miracle March are slim. John Lindsey, PG&E weather forecaster, said the most recent weather models indicate that the second week of February or later is the soonest that wetter weather patterns could return to the Central Coast.

“Send up a lot of prayers,” said Joy Fitzhugh with the San Luis Obispo County Farm Bureau. “Everybody is looking over their shoulder and hoping it gets wet from a raindrop.”

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