SACRAMENTO (CN) – As emergency drought orders, legal challenges and fights over dwindling water supplies continue, relief may be on the way, as Californians watch the Pacific Ocean for a developing El Nino.
Rising ocean temperatures helped make 2014 the “hottest year on record,” according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The rising warm waters and shifting equatorial trade winds appear to have jumpstarted an El Nino pattern that could bring abundant rain and snow to California this year.
El Nino – the child – is named for the Christmas season, when the extra rainfall appears. Scientists – in fact, all Californians – are watching to see if this year’s El Nino develops into a strong one, which some are predicting.
“We know how important it is for California. We know how extremely dry it’s been,” NOAA meteorologist Tom Di Liberto said. He said this year’s El Nino “could tilt the odds for above-average precipitation in California’s favor.”
Throughout the Central Valley, one of the nation’s breadbaskets, once-green fields resemble sunken, dry lake beds due to severe drought that some say is in its fourth year – and some say is in its 16th.
The state Capitol’s parched lawns have turned brown, a symbol from lawmakers that they too are trying to conserve the important resource.
New restrictions on water use have been sent down at such a dizzying pace that state regulators are having trouble enforcing Gov. Jerry Brown’s executive orders. In Redding, the state’s largest city north of Sacramento, officials have hired private security guards to monitor residents’ ornamental water use.
California’s water issues have become front-page news across the country. Last week, the remnants of Hurricane Dolores brought damaging storms to Southern California, causing flash floods and the collapse of a busy freeway section outside Los Angeles.
The San Diego Padres saw their second rainout in the history of Petco Park. It’s been one of the wettest Julys in California since records have been kept, and more is on the way.
Forecasters predict more unseasonable rain this week. The National Weather Service warned that Thursday’s storms could produce flash floods, lightning and gusty winds.
It could be a preview of what’s to come, Di Liberto said.
Should El Nino strengthen, as some are predicting, “You’re going to have issues with the amount of rainfall that’s fallen, landslides and whatnot,” Di Liberto said. “When you have dry ground and you have a lot of water fall, the ground doesn’t absorb the water.”
An El Nino event is declared when water temperatures in the equatorial Pacific Ocean rise above normal for three consecutive months. Last week, measurements of a target-area in the Pacific Ocean registered 2.88 degrees above average, an indicator of a strong El Nino. In 1997, another strong El Nino year, the ocean temperature was 3.06 degrees above average on July 23.
El Nino can cause droughts in India and Australia, but the usual result in Southern California is a barrage of potent storms. But what El Niño does not guarantee is wet weather in Northern California, where most of the state’s snowpack and reservoirs are.
The best-case scenario for California would be a strong El Nino that brings snow to the Sierra Nevadas and rain to Northern California.
In the strong El Nino year of 1997, Sacramento was pounded with 32 inches of rain, nearly twice its yearly average. There are records of nine strong El Nino years, during which Sacramento received an average of 130 percent of normal rainfall.
At the confluence of two major rivers, the Sacramento and the American, Sacramento has a history of flooding. In 1861, Gov. Leland Stanford had to take a rowboat to his inauguration. The city eventually was nicknamed the River City.
Cities throughout the San Joaquin River Delta could see large-scale flooding from a strong El Nino. Sacramento’s levees and dams are prepared for it, says the general manager of the agency tasked with maintaining the city’s 100-year-old levees.
“It’s the first major overhaul the levees have ever had,” said Paul Devereux, general manager of Reclamation District No. 1000. “With all the chatter and all the talk, certainly [El Nino] has got our attention.”
Devereux’s engineers are in charge of protecting a section of Sacramento that was built in a flood basin. Natomas, which is surrounded by levees, was under a federal building moratorium for seven years until 2014 because of its extreme flood risk.
Aside from levee repairs and additional preparation, Devereux said, Sacramento and Northern California should be better prepared to handle El Nino because of the historic drought.
“We’re in pretty good shape with our reservoir levels – our reservoirs are coming into this flood season with a lot more space than they normally would,” Devereux said.
Northern California is better-suited to handle a deluge of rain when compared to Southern California because of its large reservoirs, including Shasta Lake, Lake Oroville and Folsom Lake. The massive reservoirs provide water for the entire state.
Despite the strengthening El Nino indicators, scientists will not predict that El Nino will cure California’s water woes.
“There’s never a guarantee, because El Nino’s only one thing that can affect the weather and climate,” Di Liberto said.
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