The Cambrian

Odds are against another March rain miracle for Cambria

March 2015 is almost half over, and it appears the drought has a fourth-year chokehold on the area and the state. 

Sierra snowpack is woefully low this year, and meteorologists say the 2014-15 rain season is shaping up to be another dry one.

According to the Associated Press, Gov. Jerry Brown’s office continues to underline the need for sustained water conservation as the drought-emergency declaration he put in place Jan. 17, 2014, remains in effect. 

In terms of rainfall, Cambria weather’s history is a pendulum that swings from too much rain to too little, with very few years of Goldilocks-style “just right.”

Although at last reading, the water level in Cambria’s wells appears to be holding at nearly full, the area has received only about 11 inches of rainfall so far this rain season, about half of the approximately 21 inches the area would get during a so-called average season.

Aquifers from which the Cambria Community Services District draws the town’s water are shallow, and water levels in them can drop precipitously when 

upper reaches dry up in the creeks that supply the aquifers and creek water stops flowing to the ocean. That already has happened a couple of times during the winter of 2014-15, which isn’t normal, according to area ranchers. 

1990s retrospective

But this stubborn drought is far from the North Coast’s first dance at the March weather ball. 

In 1991, the area was in another long drought, one that had begun in 1989. The Services District implemented stringent water-conservation methods, most of which remain in force today. Water consumption dropped 35 percent. Sound familiar?

Then on March 6, it began to rain. Throughout the month, the precipitation continued, racking up an impressive — and very helpful — total of 10.7 inches in the month. Locals and weathercasters dubbed it the “March Miracle.”

Four years later, in what already had been a wet rain season, North Coast residents joined other Californians in preparing for a March weather wallop, a Pineapple Express storm that combined a plodding low-pressure area with a plentiful stream of moisture from the south and west.

Within 18 hours after the storm arrived, Cambria was deluged by about 12 inches of rain. The town was isolated for more than a day, with area highways blocked by landslides and fallen trees.

West Village structures were under up to 9 feet of water. At least 70 businesses flooded as water levels rose to just below the canopies on the service-station gas pumps at Ski’s gas station. 

Ultimately, the county and Caltrans installed a multimillion-dollar flood-control project to funnel such deluges away from West Village.   

Looking ahead

What will the rest of March 2015 hold? Long-term projections seem to indicate that the statewide drought will continue. Some rain may fall, meteorologists predict, but it may be stretching our luck to hope for a true March Miracle in the immediate future. 

John Lindsey, the PG&E meteorologist who writes a weather column for The Tribune, said in an email March 10 that “At this time, it’s not looking good for rain. However, the latest Madden-Julian Oscillation (MJO) could arrive by the latter part of March.” If that should happen, he said, “it could bring quite a bit of rain.” 

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration defines MJO as “a tropical disturbance that propagates eastward around the global tropics with a cycle on the order of 30-60 days. The MJO has wide-ranging impacts on the patterns of tropical and extratropical precipitation, atmospheric circulation, and surface temperature around the global tropics and subtropics. … It does not cause El Niño or La Niña, but can contribute to the speed of development and intensity of El Niño and La Niña episodes.” 

A mild El Niño condition has finally arrived, but it may be too late to have much effect on the drought, Lindsey said in his March 8 column. “Since April 2010, this cycle has either been in a La Niña or neutral condition that has probably contributed to California’s severe drought.”

According to National Weather Service studies, Lindsey continued, “weak and moderate El Niños give near-average rainfall along the Central Coast. However, strong El Niño events can produce about 140 percent of above-normal rainfall for our area. 

“But here’s the problem,” Lindsey wrote. “El Niño conditions at this time of year — March, April and May — have only produced above-average rainfall in three of the last 10 El Niño years, or about 30 percent of the time. It just may be too little, too late.”

His advice? We should “keep our fingers crossed.”