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California Drought: January Is a Rainfall Bust. How Big of a Problem Is That?

Sunny skies. Balmy temperatures. Walks on the beach. Umbrellas back in the closet.

After a soaking wet December that ended fire season, delivered more 15 feet of snow to the Sierra Nevada, and boosted hopes that California’s severe drought might be coming to and end, dry weather is back, in a big way.

Like a baseball player stuck in a hitting slump, it hasn’t rained significantly in the Bay Area for 14 days, since Jan. 4. Although reservoirs received a nice boost from big storms in December and late October, they still remain well below normal levels in most parts of the state.

Drought is Revealing a Human Security Crisis in Farming Communities

Sweeping cutbacks in water allocations to farms are leading to widespread underemployment in some of California’s most vulnerable communities. Lawmakers are scrambling for policy solutions.

The impact to paychecks has been raising food insecurity and malnutrition issues as food prices soar, while the reduced spending is reverberating through local businesses and economies. And the situation is exacerbating a mental health epidemic already made worse by the pandemic.

“Too often, these human impacts are overlooked,” said state Senator Melissa Hurtado of Sanger, in opening a recent hearing for the new Select Committee on Human Security. “We sometimes miss the impacts that drought has on food security, health, labor and the communities themselves.”

Here’s How Much Rain Fell in 35 San Diego County Communities Before Dawn Tuesday

A modest storm drenched parts of San Diego County late Monday night and early Tuesday, providing much-need rain in a region where seasonal precipitation totals have been falling behind, says the National Weather Service.

WaterSmart Landscape Makeover Series

December rainfall and cooler temperatures in San Diego County make it the perfect time of year for homeowners to create low-water-use landscaping to fit their needs. The San Diego County Water Authority is offering their 2022 WaterSmart Landscape Makeover Series of free online classes starting Wednesday, February 2.

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Atmospheric River Storm Observations Take Flight Over Pacific Ocean

Research on atmospheric rivers takes flight as UC San Diego’s Center for Western Weather and Water Extremes taps “Hurricane Hunter” aircraft for specialized scientific missions.

The aircraft will fly for a 13-week period (that began January 5) to glean critical data for improving forecasts of atmospheric river storms over the Pacific Ocean. Those storms, or “AR’s,” provide up to half of the U.S. West Coast’s annual precipitation and a majority of the flooding.

The flights are part of the Atmospheric River Reconnaissance program led by UC San Diego’s Center for Western Weather and Water Extremes (at Scripps Institution of Oceanography) with support from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and California Department of Water Resources. The AR Recon program works in coordination with NOAA’s Office of Marine and Aviation Operations and the U.S. Air Force Reserve 53rd Weather Reconnaissance Squadron “Hurricane Hunters” to carry out data-collecting missions within these storms.

Two Air Force Reserve WC-130J Super Hercules aircraft are on standby to fly out of Mather Air Force Base near Sacramento, when atmospheric rivers approach the West Coast.  NOAA will station its Gulfstream IV-SP jet in Hawaii during this year’s operations.

Dropsonde instruments will be deployed from these aircraft over specialized transects over atmospheric rivers, transmitting critical data on the vertical profile of water vapor, wind, and temperature carried in fast-moving, low-altitude airstreams that form the atmospheric river.

The San Diego County Water Authority is a partner with the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, Center for Western Weather and Water Extremes, at UC San Diego, as part of the effort to better predict atmospheric rivers and improve water management before, during, and after those seasonal storms. The partnership started in 2020.

AR Forecasting and Water Supply

An average atmospheric river carries 25 times the water equivalent of the Mississippi River in the form of vapor instead of liquid. These storms can cover a swath about 500 miles wide while extending thousands of miles in length. They pack winds ranging from more than 50 miles an hour to hurricane force.

“Science has discovered that the leading source of error in predicting when and where an atmospheric river will strike the U.S. West Coast, and how much precipitation it will create, is the position and structure of the atmospheric river itself offshore, prior to landfall,” said Scripps research meteorologist and CW3E Director F. Martin Ralph. “Obtaining accurate environmental measurements in and near the atmospheric river offshore using these aircraft and drifting ocean buoys has a significant impact on forecast accuracy. AR Recon not only fills in many data gaps over the Pacific Ocean for prediction, it supports improved scientific understanding that over time improves forecasts as well. These improvements are vital for water managers and public safety.”

Ralph leads AR Recon 2022, working closely with Vijay Tallapragada, who heads modeling efforts for the National Weather Service’s Global Forecast System (GFS); and Jim Doyle, who leads the Naval Research Laboratory’s Coupled Ocean/Atmosphere Mesoscale Prediction System.

California drought cycles and AR’s

Atmospheric rivers have helped break more than 40% of California’s droughts throughout recorded history. They also generate many of California’s most extreme precipitation events, driving 90% of California’s heaviest rains in bursts lasting one to three days. They are also responsible for as much as $1 billion a year in flood damages in western states.

California’s climate variability

Although meteorologists can see atmospheric rivers forming as much as eight days in advance, landfall forecasts can be hundreds of miles off target. AR Recon data improves forecasts of their intensity, allowing forecasters to more precisely determine potential benefits or hazards of atmospheric rivers. Situationally, they can refill reservoirs or bring flooding and debris flows. Real-time data will also be  incorporated into AR scale rankings, which can serve as a predictive indicator of the storm’s damage or benefit.

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“AR Recon has been a key monitoring element of the State’s Atmospheric River Research Program and is a great example of collaborative engagements that lead to improvements in precipitation prediction, providing multiple benefits to water managers seeking to understand climate change-caused weather extremes,” said Michael Anderson, state climatologist with the California Department of Water Resources.

As California alternates between extremes of drought and flood, accurate forecasts are increasingly vital to water managers. A collaborative program called Forecast-Informed Reservoir Operations (FIRO) uses modern forecasting methods to give reservoir operators better decision-making tools to optimize water resources. FIRO is developing the capability for these advanced forecasts to help water managers decide whether to retain water if no additional storms are forecast or release it to mitigate the risk of flooding.

Atmospheric river research helps forecasting, water management

“Research on atmospheric rivers from the Atmospheric River Reconnaissance program has helped us better predict, mitigate and optimize these weather events in California,” said U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA). “Applying this data through Forecast-Informed Reservoir Operations means better flood protection and improved water storage to help lessen the effects of drought.”

“Water managers within the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers have long maintained that they can do a better job of making water management decisions if weather forecasts were better – i.e. more accurate at longer lead times,” said Cary Talbot, chief of the Flood and Storm Protection Division at the U.S. Army Engineer Research and Development Center. “The AR Recon program, combined with the increased flexibility afforded by the FIRO program, is making better water management a reality in California and across the West because the forecasts are improving in both accuracy and lead time.”

AR Recon observations began in 2016. This year the mission window will expand to 13 weeks, three weeks longer than last year.

In addition to using dropsondes, the Air Force Reserves and ships of opportunity deployed 50 additional drifting buoys in key locations throughout the northeast Pacific this season, joining 48 buoys active from previous seasons. These buoys provide vital sea-level pressure, water temperature and wave measurements from a region lacking data needed for numerical weather predictions and climate studies. The buoy deployments were completed in partnership with the Scripps-based, NOAA-funded Global Drifter Program (GDP), the California Department of Water Resources, and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

Data gathering using GPS signals

Air Force Reserve aircraft will also be equipped with what are known as airborne radio occultation capabilities. Proven on NOAA’s Gulfstream IV-SP platform in previous seasons, the airborne radio occultation technique uses GPS signals to detect variations in atmospheric properties and provide critical moisture and temperature profiles in the larger environment surrounding the aircraft, complementing the dropsondes.

Neither satellites nor other conventional observation methods can detect conditions captured from buoys and dropsondes. In offshore areas from the ground to a height of several miles, AR Recon dropsonde data account for most temperature and humidity observations and almost half of the wind observations. These data plug a serious gap in the standard network of weather observations impacting the U.S. mainland.

Weather officers and navigators of the U.S. Air Force Reserves will embed at Scripps Oceanography for flight planning this season, assisted by a team from NOAA’s Environmental Modeling Center and flight directors from NOAA’s Aircraft Operations Center. About 50 people aid flight planning throughout the season, including approximately 20 from Scripps Oceanography and up to 15 from the Air Force Reserves.

The AR Recon Program has grown from a demonstration phase in 2016 to an operational requirement in 2019 and is now included in the federal National Winter Season Operational Plan. It has expanded from flying three storm Intense Observation Periods in 2016 to 30 such periods in 2021, with more than 117 aircraft missions flown and data from more than 3,000 dropsondes assimilated in real-time operations.

AR Recon data used for global weather models

Leading global weather models at NOAA and the National Weather Service, the U.S. Navy, and European agencies and others incorporate AR Recon data into their forecasts. In the northeast Pacific, AR Recon observations have improved precipitation forecasts over the western United States. They also provide a more accurate analysis of upstream atmospheric conditions before potential high-impact weather events develop over the central and eastern parts of the country.

“Real-time assimilation of AR Recon observations have made a significant impact on NOAA’s operational GFS, particularly for the precipitation forecasts along the west coast of the United States, with forecast improvements exceeding 20-30 percent in areas where heavy precipitation occurs due to landfalling atmospheric rivers,” said Vijay Tallapragada, Chief of Modeling and Data Assimilation Branch at NOAA’s Environmental Modeling Center.

The Research and Operations partnership established through the AR Recon Program has enabled scientists from NOAA working closely with CW3E and the Navy in developing advanced sampling strategies for mission planning and targeted collection of observations critical for improving the analysis and forecasts. The AR Recon observations also have notably improved key aspects of NOAA’s GFS. Wind forecasts alone have improved by 17% after including AR Recon data. The Navy has found that AR Recon data improves forecasts as much as all the data collected from balloon-borne radiosondes in North America.

The recent report from NOAA’s Science Advisory Board on Priorities for Weather Research explicitly recommended the implementation of a multi-phase program to improve atmospheric river forecasting to better anticipate and mitigate extreme precipitation swings and their cascading impacts.

In 2022, the AR Recon Program will include, for the first time, real-time data collection and feedback that can instantly impact experiments being carried out with NOAA’s GFS. Making this possible are the computational resources provided by San Diego Supercomputer Center’s “COMET” to facilitate documenting the forecast improvements and support mission planning.

(Editor’s Note: Follow the work of Scripps Institution of Oceanography scientists at the Center for Western Weather and Water Extremes on Twitter at @CW3E_Scripps, the U.S. Air Force Reserves Weather Reconnaissance Squadron at @53rdWRS, and NOAA Aircraft Operations Center at @NOAA_HurrHunter.)

California’s Drought Reckoning Could Offer Lessons for the West

The golden hills of California have turned green in recent weeks after a series of storms delivered much-needed rain and snow to a state suffering from two years of drought.

But state officials and water policy experts are still urging caution even in these wet conditions, pushing for water-saving measures as the drought is expected to continue throughout much of the West.

Central, South Coasts Get Some Impressive Rainfall, But Water Experts Say It’s Just a Down Payment on Easing Drought

A series of storms dumped impressive amounts of rainfall on the Central and South Coasts during the last quarter of 2021. But, water experts say people need to understand what we’ve had is nothing close to being a drought buster.

There was a lot of excitement in the drought-stricken region. By the end of 2021, the news media was reporting that places like Camarillo had received 176% of normal-to-date rainfall, Oxnard 211%, and Santa Barbara 168%. But, water experts say many people are misunderstanding the nuances of the statistics.

Winter Weather Perfect Time for WaterSmart Landscape Makeover Series

December rainfall and cooler temperatures in San Diego County make it the perfect time of year for homeowners to create low-water-use landscaping to fit their needs. The San Diego County Water Authority offers its first 2022 WaterSmart Landscape Makeover Series of free online classes starting Wednesday, February 2. Registration for the four-class series closes on Monday, January 17. Register at WaterSmartSD.org. There is no fee to participate, but course participation is limited.

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Winter Weather Perfect Time for WaterSmart Landscape Makeover Series

December rainfall and cooler temperatures in San Diego County make it the perfect time of year for homeowners to create low-water-use landscaping to fit their needs. The San Diego County Water Authority offers its first 2022 WaterSmart Landscape Makeover Series of free online classes starting Wednesday, February 2. The classes provide homeowners site-specific knowledge, skills, and confidence to transform their thirsty turf yard into a beautiful, climate-appropriate, water-efficient space.

Registration for the four-class series closes on Monday, January 17. Register at WaterSmartSD.org. There is no fee to participate, but course participation is limited.

Custom plans and one-on-one professional guidance

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This landscape makeover winner shows how contouring your landscaping can help retain and conserve water. Photo: Sweetwater Authority

Water Authority Water Resources Specialist Joni German said the course will give participants a customized roadmap to follow.

“We have different templates and themes to design the garden you want,” said German. “Do you need turf for the kids or pets? A meditation space? Or do you want to screen out undesirable views? With our help, you design the landscape that fits your lifestyle.”

Ideal time for new plants

German said with soils now soft and spongy, it’s the ideal time of year to add new plants and creating a new water-wise landscape.

As part of the course, participants will receive a site visit prior to the class, a preliminary onsite CAD drawing of their property to work with during the class, and one-on-one coaching from landscaping professionals.

Turf rebate programs offer rebates of up to $3 per square foot toward project costs for upgrading existing turf. To date, several hundred homeowners have transformed their landscapes into beautiful, climate-appropriate mini-watersheds which yield benefits including stormwater runoff reduction and lessening green waste in addition to saving water.

Positive participant feedback for free program

Eileen Koonce says she was able to install her own landscaping with the help she received from instructors. Photo: Vallecitos Water District

Eileen Koonce says she was able to install her own landscaping with the help she received from course instructors. Photo: Vallecitos Water District

German said the program has evolved through the years in part due to feedback from previous participants, including information about capturing rainwater and cutting back on irrigation.

“People frequently say to us, ‘I can’t believe this program is free!’ Recent participants tell us the time flies, and they go from feeling overwhelmed to confident about their landscape projects,” said German.

Vallecitos Water District Development Services Coordinator Eileen Koonce participated in the course as a new homeowner to reduce her water usage by removing her thirsty front lawn.

Koonce said she enjoyed working with the instructors.

“They bring the language down to the do-it-yourselfers,” said Koonce. “They walk you through every part of it and if you have questions, they can help you out. You feel empowered because you can understand the process.”

Landscaping design and planining

Landscaping designers can expedite your landscape makeover plans. Photo: San Diego County Water Authority

Koonce tackled most of the design work herself with the help of instructors, who are licensed landscape architects. Instructors helped Koonce pick out the plants and choose an irrigation system.

After participants sign up for the four-class course, a site visit will take place with a local, licensed landscape specialist who will create a professionally-drawn site plan of your specific project area. The plans becomes a personal road map to navigate through the classes. Before the class concludes, homeowners get one-on-one coaching to help select plants and finalize their plan.

Watch the preview video

Homeowners with questions about the course can email or call (858) 598-5085 for information. Space is limited so homeowners are encouraged to apply now at WaterSmartSD.org. 

(Editor’s note: The Sweetwater Authority, Vallecitos Water District, and the Padre Dam Municipal Water District are three of the San Diego County Water Authority’s 24 member agencies that deliver water across the metropolitan San Diego region.)

Continued Drought Early in a Possibly Wet Year

California’s 2021 calendar year is over, but its 2022 Water Year (which started October 2021) is already three months old and still early in its wet season.  So far this wet season is actually wet.

It is a good time to assess the condition of the present drought and whether it is likely to end with this wet season.  And under such conditions, what are water management activities and policy initiatives we should be doing?