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North Coast sinking back into ‘Extreme Drought’

Coastal Sonoma County and virtually all of Mendocino County have slipped back into a state of “extreme” drought amid a prolonged dry spell during what should be the wettest part of the year, according to the latest update of the U.S. Drought Monitor.

With just a few spits of rain through all of January and February, and predicted dry weather ahead, conditions are ripe for a long, parched summer of water use restrictions and other extreme measures.

But water watchers continue to hold out hope for a “miracle March” that could at least bolster supplies and lessen the pain.

“We’re not going to see a rebound to normal conditions I think right now,” said Don Seymour, principal engineer at Sonoma Water. “What we’re hoping for is to get as much improvement as we can.”

The National Weather Service Climate Prediction Center says rain is unlikely for the first half of March and that the area has equal chances of dryer and wetter than usual wetter for the latter half.

Seymour said European atmospheric models suggest “a bunch or storms coming our way” in March.

“It’s wait and see,” he said.

Ten months after Gov. Gavin Newsom proclaimed a drought emergency while standing in a patch of dry lake bed at Lake Mendocino, the entire region continues to operate at a deficit, with season-to-date and year-to-date rainfall totals running well below normal.

What rain has come was mostly all at once, during an atmospheric river Oct. 24.

The October storm and a few smaller ones at least boosted water courses and storage enough that North Coast counties were mostly downgraded from “extreme” to “severe” drought in the Dec. 21 Drought Monitor update. They were completely out of the “extreme” category by Dec. 28.

But then the rain stopped.

Both Santa Rosa and Ukiah have had less than an inch of rain since Jan. 1, where normal would be 12.20 and 11.82 inches respectively, National Weather Service forecasters said Thursday.

Sonoma County is doing better for the Oct. 1-to-Sept. 30 season, thanks primarily to the October storm, which brought record rainfall to the region.

Santa Rosa has had 22.02 inches season-to-date, compared to a normal of 24.19. Ukiah, which roughly reflects the amount of rainfall in the Lake Mendocino watershed, has had 15.35 inches to date. Normal is 24.06, the National Weather Service said.

But while folks in the Sonoma/Marin county “dairy belt” around Two Rock and Valley Ford, where water supplies are especially fragile, were able to store some water during autumn rains, the dry weather since means pasture isn’t growing as well as it should.

“Obviously, unless we get more rain, later in the year we are going to start hauling water again,” veteran dairy rancher Neil McIsaac said. “But right now everything is OK.”

Though a decent amount of rainfall can accumulate in each of the first three months of the year, “we do tend to fade away when it comes to precipitation in March,” meteorologist Matt Mehle said. “But we have had a few years where March has had what is dubbed a ‘Miracle March,’ where we’ve had a lot of rain that has erased the deficit of earlier in the year.”

But La Nina atmospheric conditions continue to dictate a dry pattern, he said.

Lake Mendocino is holding more water than it did last year at this time, with about 62% of its storage target. Lake Sonoma, meanwhile has less water, though only slightly, and stands at about 61% full.

The state water board has suspended curtailments on water diversions from the upper Russian River that were imposed last year to try to sustain river flows and reduce withdrawals from Lake Mendocino. That order is expected to be reviewed in early March.

The U.S. Drough Monitor calculates that about 6.7% of the state is now in extreme drough, and 68.77% is in severe drought.

The U.S. Drought Monitor, updated weekly, is produced by the National Drought Mitigation Center at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and the U. S. Department of Agriculture.

You can reach Staff Writer Mary Callahan at 707-521-5249 or mary.callahan@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @MaryCallahanB.

Editor’s note: European atmospheric models have shifted into greater alignment with U.S. predictions since this story was published, suggesting greater likelihood of dry weather ahead, Don Seymour, principal engineer with Sonoma Water, said Friday.

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