Sunday, February 8, 2015

How will we know when it's over?

As I write this on Sunday evening (February 8, 2015), my rain coat and my winter work coat are both drying.  This weekend marks the first time I've needed rain gear since before Christmas - so far, we've measured nearly 2.75" of rain since Friday afternoon.  While it's less than was predicted for Auburn, the rain is a welcome departure from our record dry January.  But our drought continues - even with a record-setting December, we're behind normal.  And there's very little snow in the Sierra Nevada.  From where I sit, there doesn't seem to be an end to our Big Dry.

Droughts are different than other weather phenomena for several reasons.  With big storms, we usually have some warning - as we do with heat waves.  With drought, however, we don't know we're in one until well after it's started.  The calendar year 2013 was the driest on record for our part of California - we measured just over 10 inches for the entire year.  Since California almost always experiences a summer "drought" - we rarely receive any rainfall from June through October - the dryness snuck up on me.  Looking back at my writing from 12-14 months ago, I started to realize that we were facing serious drought conditions in December 2013.  By January 2014, we were in the midst of the longest winter dry spell in recorded history.  About 12 months ago, we started selling sheep to make sure we weren't overstocked on our grazing land.  Today, I've taken a full-time job as the herdsman at the Sierra Foothill Research and Extension Center (SFREC) - in part because we don't have enough sheep to generate a full-time income.

December 2014 was quite different than December 2013.  With more than 11 inches of rain, we received more precipitation in December than we did in all of 2013.  However, when we drove to church in the rain on Christmas Eve 2014, I had no idea that it was the last significant rain we'd receive until last Friday.  In addition to being dry, January was exceptionally warm.  The blue oaks in Auburn, which typically don't come out of dormancy until early March, already have their new leaves.  Some of our annual grasses are already going to seed - at least 45 days early.

The uncertainty about a drought's beginnings is matched by the uncertainty about it's termination.  Meteorologists tell us that we need 150-175% of "normal" rainfall to end our drought, but we won't know if we've achieved that benchmark until after it's happened.  For me, this uncertainty brings a psychological cost.  Uncertainty engenders worry - will we have enough spring grass for the sheep (and for the cows at SFREC)?  Will we have enough stored water to irrigate our pastures this summer?  What will next fall bring?  Our current weather also makes me wonder about longer term issues - is this the new "normal" weather pattern?  Can we expect extended winter dry periods punctuated by brief periods of inundation?  When will this drought be over, or is this what we can expect in the future?  While I'm waiting to find out, I guess I'll just enjoy this weekend's stormy weather!

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