SLO County whiplashes back into drought as hot, dry winters return

A couple fish from their boat on a recent warm, sunny Sunday at Lopez Lake, where a lack of rainfall once again threatens water levels.
A couple fish from their boat on a recent warm, sunny Sunday at Lopez Lake, where a lack of rainfall once again threatens water levels. The Tribune

Below-average rainfall has pushed San Luis Obispo County back into a moderate drought condition — just a year after epic rainfall pulled the county out of what had been a five-year dry spell.

And the situation is even worse to the south, with severe conditions now existing in Santa Barbara, Ventura and Los Angeles counties — home to one-fourth of the state’s population, a national drought monitor said Thursday.

On Thursday, PG&E meteorologist John Lindsey tweeted that the three coastal counties south of San Luis Obispo are now in a D2, or severe drought condition.

According to the latest map released by the U.S. Drought Monitor, a project of government agencies and other partners, the drought category rose across most of Southern California, with about a 1-category increase in those areas.

The U.S. Drought Monitor’s weekly report also shows 44 percent of the state is now considered to be in a moderate drought. It’s a dramatic jump from just last week, when the figure was 13 percent.

Fears of drought

The new figures came amid growing concern among state officials about another dry winter. The dry spell is acute in Southern California. Los Angeles and some surrounding areas have received only one significant storm in nearly a year, and it triggered deadly mudslides. The region is now seeing record-setting heat.

The readings detailed Thursday show the drought has worsened to the severe category in 5 percent of the state. The last time even a small part of the state was rated in severe drought was last year.

However, Thursday’s figures were far better than those during the peak of the state’s epic dry spell, when 99.9 percent of California was in some stage of drought, and nearly half in the highest category.

But the drought never really seemed to lift in some Southern California areas, Daniel Swain, a climate scientist at UCLA, noted this week.

In Ventura and Santa Barbara counties, the lack of rain and dry vegetation were perfect fuel for a December wildfire that grew to become the largest recorded in state history. When it finally rained, the scorched earth turned into mudslides that sent earth, water and boulders roaring through neighborhoods.

One-year difference

The conditions are a stark change from last year at this time.

At the beginning of February 2017, San Luis Obispo County was also in a moderate drought — but then, it was considered a good thing, as the county had previously been in severe drought.

More than 10 inches of rain fell in SLO County in January 2017, due to a high-pressure ridge of air that was moving around the Pacific instead of hovering right off the coast. That movement opened the door for storm systems to reach the Central Coast.

A year later, SLO County saw a January that was notably warmer and drier than normal, according to data from the National Weather Service, including a record-breaking heat wave that set three new daily highs in one week in the city of San Luis Obispo.

On the storm front, from Oct. 1, 2017, through Jan. 30, 2018, the Central Coast saw about half of its average precipitation, with some areas seeing as little as 25 percent of the normal, according to the NWS.

“In the heart of our rainfall season, this high-pressure ridge will continue to deflect the storm track northwards,” Lindsey told the Tribune on Thursday. “At this time, dry weather looks to continue into the second week of February. However, (Wednesday’s) model runs are still advertising a chance of rain starting on Valentine’s Day, and continuing through the following week.”

Frank Gehrke, right, with the Department of Water Resources checks the snowpack depth as Courtney Obergfell, left, and Michelle Mead, center, both of the National Weather Service, look on during the second snow survey of the season Thursday near Echo Summit, Calif. The snow survey showed the snow pack at this location at 13.6 inches of deep with a water content of 2.6 inches. Rich Pedroncelli AP

Northern California fares better

Things are a little rosier in Northern California, where much of the region is not listed as being in a drought category.

On Thursday, the state conducted its monthly snow survey at Echo Summit near Lake Tahoe, reporting the level at less than a third of normal for the date.

“It’s not nearly where we’d like to be,” said Frank Gehrke, a state official, after carrying out manual measurements of the Sierra Nevada’s winter snowfall, which supplies water to millions of Californians in a good, wet year.

Gehrke record just showed 13.6 inches of snow in his latest measurement. While that’s 14 percent of the historical average, just a month ago the ground was mostly bare, with officials recording just 1.3 inches of snow.

State officials told the Sacramento Bee that it’s still too early to worry about another drought, and Gehrke told the Bee he was hopeful this winter could turn wet.

“There’s still a lot of the winter left,” he said. “Anything can happen as we move through the rest of the season.”

The Associated Press contributed to the report.

Gabby Ferreira: 805-781-7858, @Its_GabbyF

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