SLO County has driest December, January on record so far


San Luis Obispo County is having its driest December and January since rain records were first kept in 1869, according to local forecaster John Lindsey.

Since Nov. 21, only 0.18 of an inch of rain has been recorded at Cal Poly, the official home for local climatology. Through Friday, 5.5 inches of rain should have been measured, he said. Put another way, Lindsey added, only 3 percent of normal rainfall has fallen since Nov. 21.

“January is not over with, and we might be in for some rain in the last week of January, so that record probably won’t hold up but if the pattern holds to the end of January, it will be the driest we have ever seen,” said Lindsey, a community relations specialist with PG&E who has been forecasting local weather for more than 20 years.

While the National Drought Mitigation Center has declared Northern California to be in a moderate drought, San Luis Obispo County remains outside that classification. But local ranchers say they have drought-related problems, such as higher feed costs.

“It’s the worst-case scenario we could have,” said Steve Rossi of Rossi Transport Feed and Forest Supply in Templeton. “In my 30-plus years in the business, I’ve never seen conditions this bad.”

The cause of the cold, dry weather has been a stubbornly strong high-pressure ridge over California that has pushed the storm track far to the north. As dry as it has been here, Alaska is setting records for snow and low temperatures as storms have been slamming the far north.

The presence of the high-pressure area is a sign of the La Niña phenomenon, which refers to cooler-than-normal ocean temperatures along the West Coast. When that happens, high pressure tends to remain in place over California, Lindsey said.

In reviewing the rain year so far, Lindsey said, “We had a good October and November, but those are not big rain months. ... When you lose December and January, those are important months. Recovery from the rain deficit will be difficult, but not impossible.”

In a typical December, 3.79 inches of rain is measured at Cal Poly, and January averages 5.17 inches.

There is still hope, however. Lindsey cited the “March Miracle” rains of 1991, when almost 13 inches fell that one month in a winter that had been below normal for rain.And he noted that the newest long-term outlook by federal climate scientists suggests next winter might revert to an El Niño condition. If that occurs, above-average rainfall could result.

Effect on ranchers

Livestock grazing is one of the first areas in agriculture to be affected by lack of rain. That’s because grazing is largely dependent on rainfall to grow grass for cattle and horses. With little to no forage for animals to eat, ranchers have to supplement their feed with hay — but at a cost.

“Hay is at record prices,” Rossi said. “We’re going through what’s available just super fast right now ... and with the economy the way it is, people are having a difficult time paying the price.”

Two years ago, the cost of a bale of hay was $10. Now it retails for $17.

Rossi said some ranchers are selling cattle to reduce the number of animals they have to feed, and the price of beef is “fairly good.”

Rancher Mike Moore of the J&O Ranch in Templeton has about 20 head of cattle on his 56-acre ranch. It costs him about $32,000 a year to feed his cattle.

Joy Fitzhugh of Fitzhugh Hill Ranch has about 80 head of cattle near Cambria. This winter she is feeding them 10 bales of hay three times a week. That equals $510 a week, and the cost doesn’t stop there.

“We’re hauling hay to the cattle,” she said. “We have to load it on a flatbed truck and haul it and that gets expensive. We just keep our fingers crossed hoping for rain.”

Upcoming Forecast

The long dry spell might give way next weekend to rain, forecasters say. John Lindsey, a local forecaster, said a series of storms will move through Northern California next weekend, and the trailing edges of those fronts will brush over San Luis Obispo County, bringing chances of rain.

The computer models expect the week of Jan. 23 to stay stormy, Lindsey said. “It appears the storm track will shift further southward and hopefully increase chances for more significant rain events to pass over San Luis Obispo.”

The National Weather Service predicts a chance of rain from Santa Barbara south on Sunday, thanks to a sluggish storm system off the coast. But most of next week will revert to being dry until Friday, when rain chances begin.

— Tad Weber