Considering what happened to the village of Montecito earlier this month, it’s hard to imagine we have a drought problem. But perhaps because this is California, we do.
The early January storm episode left much of Montecito in shambles, cut off traffic on one of this state’s major north/south highways, killed more than 20 people and destroyed dozens of homes.
And here we are, many days after the deadly flooding, and much of that area remains off-limits, and may remain so for a while.
One would think rainfall capable of inflicting such damage would put an end to talk of drought. Not so much. The downpours were concentrated in the hills above Carpinteria and Montecito, slopes that had been scoured by the Thomas fire, destroying ground cover that would have kept the ensuing mud avalanche from happening.
North County also received plenty of rain — but not enough to make much of a dent in the storage deficits at major reservoirs.
For example, Santa Maria received 2.38 inches, or just 44 percent of normal to date; Sisquoc received 3 inches, or 49 percent of normal; Lompoc received 2.42 inches, or 42 percent of normal.
You get the picture. The supposed “rainy season” totals are less than half what has been considered normal in years past. Rainfall as of mid-January was only 51 percent of normal for Santa Ynez. Even typically soggy San Marcos Pass has received about 33 percent of normal rainfall for the season.
The downpours that ravaged Montecito did add to the storage totals at Cachuma Lake and Gibraltar Reservoir, which feeds into Cachuma. Sadly, the additions brought the water level at Cachuma only to 53 percent of normal. Twitchell Reservoir, Santa Maria’s main surface-water supply, has continued to fall during this rainy spell, and now sits at just less than 5 percent of capacity.
Santa Barbara County’s calendar “water year” starts each Sept. 1 and runs through Aug. 31, which means we’re still two months shy of being half-way through this rainy season. Fortunately, those two months could be critical to the drought/no-drought equation.
February and March can be exceedingly wet months along California’s coast, and could produce enough rainfall to offset the worst of our drought conditions.
However, should a lot of rain fall, it could bring further devastation to the South Coast.
The bottom line here is that we may be caught in a cycle of drought conditions that could trigger another statewide emergency declaration. Long droughts set up monster wildfire conditions, something we’ve seen in recent years as each fire season seems to be worse than the preceding fire season. It’s a revolving door from which there is no apparent escape.
All of which makes it doubly important that, while we can hope for the best, we all need to prepare for the worst.
No one is 100-percent certain what a changing global climate will bring to specific regions. It does seem fairly evident that such climactic changes have ramped up California’s potential for long-term drought, which in turn amplifies the threat of catastrophic wildfires. The Thomas fire roared into the biggest in the state’s recorded history — a record that, sadly, will probably not last very long.
As we said earlier, hope for the best, plan for the worst. That may sound draconian and seriously negative, but if you heed the advice, it could save your life.