Dry times ahead, forecasters fear
February 20, 2003
If winter weather patterns persistently fizzle out, the Lake Tahoe region may experience more problems than just a dry season — it could mean consecutive years with below normal precipitation.
This year’s moderate El Ni-o, billed as strange and unpredictable, has failed to produce the amount of precipitation expected for the Pacific Coast from Southern California north to the lake.
December’s strong start to the season subsided with a below average January and disappointing February, with nine days left to go in the month.
For the Sierra Nevada, this El Ni-o is punctuated by a February with about 30 percent less rain and snow and a greater chance of being followed by a La Ni-a. The opposite of El Ni-o is characterized as a cold water mass that usually brings the region even less precipitation.
“If you’re a betting person, you’d bet on a back-to-back El Ni-o and La Ni-a. And if that happens, that’s when it starts to get serious,” said John Kermond, chief climatologist with National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. “But Mother Nature still holds the aces.”
Drought is the level of seriousness Kermond is worried about.
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If La Ni-a follows the tropical weather phenomenon, sea-surface temperatures may decrease by as much as 10 degrees. Current water temperatures are reported as 1 degree above normal, which is still enough to cause global climate changes.
NOAA points to the warm water mass that formed in late summer off the shores of South America — a couple of months sooner than originally predicted — as part of the reason for a dry spell. This may mean it ends as early as April, two months sooner than usual.
“It’s still with us, but it’s the most unusual event,” Kermond said. “Southern California had six to eight weeks without a drop (before last week’s major storm). Usually by this time, houses are falling off the cliffs in Malibu.”
He used the view outside his Washington, D.C., office as an example of the uncanny nature of this winter. A mild El Ni-o often brings an average amount of snowfall to the nation’s capital, but last week’s storms gave the region its fifth largest dump on record.
Tahoe’s last snow and rainstorm, combined with snowmelt, raised the lake level by a few inches to 6,223.7 feet. The rim level is 6,223 feet.
“This has turned out to be a real bummer. (This El Ni-o) hasn’t turned out to be a traditional one,” California Department of Water Resources Chief Hydrologist Morris Reuss said, referring to the current dry spell. “February’s not panning out, so we may be heading for a below average year,” he said.
The weather forecast for the upcoming week shows sunny, clear skies, with few chances of snow showers.
Reuss shared concern that the Sierra Nevada’s prospects for precipitation are fast diminishing, with one more month of rain and snow left to push up the water level in the snowpack.
Beyond the water-drinking public, hydroelectric power plant operators and farmers have a vested interest in these measurements.
The combination of Southern California being in its second consecutive dry year, Northern California not quite reaching normal levels from the Sierra Nevada snowpack and water allocation from the Colorado River being scaled back may mean the state could experience water shortages.
The trickle-down effect may hit consumers at checkout stands, as the price of California’s crops could eventually be jacked up because farmers will be paying more to do business, assuming they even have the resources to plant all of their fields.
-Susan Wood can be reached at (530) 542-8009 or via e-mail at email@example.com