NOAA: Dry, warm winter could bring drought to California, Southwest in 2021

With the world coming off the hottest September since 1880, California’s North Bay to the south is likely to experience a continuance of warmer, drier weather conditions into the winter, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration reported Thursday.

The NOAA forecast brought out the dreaded “d” word — drought.

Globally, its scientists at the National Centers for Environmental Information revealed September was 1.75 degrees above the 20th century average of 59 degrees Fahrenheit. The 10 warmest Septembers have all occurred since 2005, fueling the charge to evaluate climate change.

Ground zero for indicators, NOAA’s Climate Prediction Center Deputy Director Mike Halpert said 2021 is shaping up as “the most widespread drought than we’ve seen since 2013” for both ends of the state to just south of the Oregon border.

At that latitude, two-thirds of the United States will be facing a winter that will fall short of adequate rainfall.

The culprit is a building La Nina, a tropical phenomenon set up as a water mass in the Pacific Ocean off the shores of South America that influences weather patterns and equates to a warmer, drier bottom for much of the southern and central parts of the nation.

The strength of the La Nina is unknown at this time, according to NOAA.

“Every La Nina is different, but we can tell by the models it will be colder to the north and warmer to the south. One-third of the nation north of California and the West will pretty much be affected in January,” Halpert told the Business Journal.

As for extremes, Northern California has been doused with its fair share — with the state coming off a record fire year that’s devoured 4.1 million acres, killed 31 people and destroyed 9,200 structures, according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection. And with a red flag warning now in affect in the North Bay until Friday, residents and business owners are not out of the woods in a particularly bad season, with Diablo winds still looming this fall.

Come winter, the precipitation that does materialize may also give way to extremes, again.

“Certainly a lot of the rain will fall (as) atmospheric events,” Halpert told the Business Journal.

The hope is the reservoirs filled up from the dynamic, wet winter of 2018-19 will remain as such when the storms arrive. But runoff often creates too much too fast, and worse yet, flooding in fire-stricken areas.

“Clearly, we don’t want to see extremes that add another disaster layer to what we’ve already experienced,” Napa County Farm Bureau CEO Ryan Klobas said on National Farmer Day Monday. “We’d love to see normal patterns. A lot of our (farming) areas are scorched and will take time to recover. Too much water can cause problems with erosion, but not enough can cause worse problems.”

If they had their druthers, farmers along with policy pundits and advocates like Klobus insisted they would rather have wet conditions than dry, based on the lack of grazing for livestock to feed on when California faces drought conditions. Adding fuel to the fire, the lack of grazing allows wildfires to take off in these unprecedented firestorms Northern California has experienced. Five of the top 20 largest wildfires in California history have occurred this year alone, Cal Fire reported.

On the front line

The lack of precipitation in the western forecast doesn’t bode well for water users, firefighters, ski resorts, winter tourism advocates and especially farmers.

“If this drought intensifies and is severe, this will be a big deal for farmers,” said David Miskus, a member of NOAA’s Drought Task Force.

There’s no need to tell Sonoma County dairy farmer Doug Beretta of the dire consequences. He’s already living them on his farm founded by his grandfather in 1948.

In the last few months, Beretta has spent about $25,000 more a month on feed for his head of 530 cattle divided between his Santa Rosa organic home ranch and Valley Ford’s.

“I can’t afford much more,” he said, adding he usually spends about $100,000 on feed in a normal month.

But unlike the big winter of 2018-19, last year going into 2020 makes for no normal year. Water becomes a twofold problem with irrigation needs.

“On July 1, we started living this concern,” he said of the start of the water year resource officials use to determine allocations.

His dairy water supply consists of reclaimed water provided by the city of Santa Rosa, which as the jurisdiction’s treated water ran short on its allotment from the previous year. More of the allocation was earmarked by the city to fund electricity as a commodity, he said.

He’s wondering if yet another dry year will force him to dig into two old wells his grandfather used decades ago. They would need pumps installed for the idea to work.

“If it stays dry, dry, and we get into a drought again, we’d have to evaluate that,” Beretta said. “It comes down to the cost.”

One obstacle after another appears to go with the territory in the North Bay, Sonoma County Farm Bureau Executive Director Tawny Tesconi pointed out.

“Farmers always have a concern about drought and a dry year. It compounds itself with increased costs and that there’s not as much pasture land — not that torrential rain (at once) helps,” she said, while also issuing a warning if the North Bay experiences extremes. “I’ve lived in Sonoma County all my life, and these winters feel a lot different.”

Most farmers rely on groundwater supplies, reclaimed allocations and water rights from the Russian River. Depending on Mother Nature comes with its own peril.

“What we see in the reservoirs isn’t just for farmers,” she said.

Because of the winter of 2018-19, reservoirs have remained at 93% capacity through Sept. 30. But between a lackluster 2020 in which California’s water year resulted in a snowpack of just 50% of average on April 1, the state can’t afford year after year of drought like the five-year cluster a few years ago.

“California is experiencing the impacts of climate change with devastating wildfires, record temperatures, variability in precipitation and a smaller snowpack, state Department of Water Resources Director Karla Nemeth said.

“We certainly need rain and snow, since farmers are receiving reduced water supplies,” California Farm Bureau spokesman Dave Kranz said. “That’s how our reservoirs see us through. But the system is strained from other priorities.”

Kranz is referencing water supplies reserved for fisheries under environmental guidelines. In other words, there’s only so much to go around.

“A second dry winter would be problematic,” he said.

Kranz cited many farmers complaining of short water supplies, adding to COVID-19 pandemic and wildfire woes.

The state farm bureau official has his fingers crossed that storm water runoff won’t pose a problem for the member farmers since “extremes are not good” in keeping the land intact and the crops irrigated at an adequate rate.

“It’s been a challenging year,” he said.

Susan Wood covers law, cannabis, production, as well as banking and finance and residential real estate. For 25 years, Susan has worked for a variety of publications including the North County Times in San Diego County, Tahoe Daily Tribune and Lake Tahoe News. She graduated from Fullerton College. Reach her at 530-545-8662 or

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