Viewpoint

What would an El Niño year mean to Central California this winter?

June 19, 2014 

The most commonly accepted definition of an El Niño is a persistent warming of the so-called “Niño 3.4” region of the tropical Pacific Ocean south of Hawaii, lasting for at least five consecutive three-month “seasons.” A recent reversal in the direction of the Pacific trade winds appears to have kicked off a warming trend during the past month or two. That was enough to prompt U.S. government forecasters to issue an El Niño watch last month.

The most recent strong El Niño year was in 1997-98, and many parts of California experienced significant precipitation and diverse weather. A virtual river of water commonly referred to as the “pineapple express” is directed at California from generally the direction of Hawaii. Parts of the Bay Area experienced more than 50 inches of rain.

Mudslides, major flooding in low areas of California and winds that toppled trees and wrecked infrastructure were common. Millions (if not billions) of dollars of property loss occurred, and prices of certain crops — such as lettuce — bolted upward.

Having lived in Cambria for the past three El Niño events, I feel compelled to relate some words of advice gained from experience. Simply put, do not procrastinate in taking care of those household maintenance chores and tree trimming needs. Attend to roof leaks and skylight maintenance, keep your rain gutters free of obstructions and conduct basic safety measures around your home. The old adage of an “ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure” really hits the mark and can save you from untold headaches and significant financial losses.

Pruning trees near your home is essential. Tree canopies that are dense and crowded can act like sails, and some well-placed lopping of branches may prevent your favorite tree from toppling. Keeping your car in good operating order and replacing those wiper blades will keep you more secure while traveling in stormy weather.

From a drought perspective, heavy rains can cause severe erosion because parched earth does not absorb moisture quickly. Crops cannot be harvested and if the rains come early and the weather is warm, grasses and some crops can mildew.

If you live by the ocean or near creeks or drainage swales, extra care is essential in monitoring the potential for flooding. Make sure culverts are free of debris. If you are new to the area, check with your neighbors and listen to their experiences with unusual weather episodes that have happened in your neighborhood.

The most important thing you can do is be aware of your surroundings and keep your living area maintained. While you can never be fully protected from the vagaries of Mother Nature, you can be smart and not delay in implementing those cost-effective safety measures of protecting your home and belongings.

Lastly, I leave you with a quote from John Steinbeck’s “East of Eden”:

“And it never failed that during the dry years the people forgot about the rich years, and during the wet years they lost all memory of the dry years. It was always that way.”

Cambria resident Rick Hawley has been executive director of Greenspace — The Cambria Land Trust for 26 years but plans to semiretire this year.

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