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 episodes left much of Montecito in horrifying shambles, cut off traffic on one of this state’s major north/south highways, killed more than 20 people and destroyed homes, many of which could have graced feature articles in architecture and interior-design magazines.
And here we are, weeks after the deadly flooding, and much of that area remains off-limits, and may remain so for a long time.
One would think that rainfall capable of inflicting such damage would more or less put an end to drought talk. 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 mud avalanche from happening.
In fact, folks up this way got a lot of rain — but not enough to make a dent in the storage deficits at major reservoirs.
For example, Buellton’s rainfall totals for this so-called rainy season are less than half of what has, in years past, been considered normal. Rain as of early January was only 51 percent of normal for Santa Ynez. Even San Marcos Pass, which normally is a rain magnet, has received about 33 percent of normal rainfall for the season.
Still, 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 actually decreased during this rainy spell, and now sits at just less than 5-percent capacity.
The Cachuma storage figures are of consequence for Santa Ynez Valley residents because Cachuma is the source of annual recharge efforts for the Santa Ynez River channel, which in turn helps restore Valley groundwater supplies.
Santa Barbara County’s supposed “water year” starts each Sept. 1 and runs through Aug. 31, which means we’re still two months shy of being half-way through the rain period. Those two months could be critical to the drought, no-drought question.
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.
Also unfortunately, that level of rainfall could bring further devastation to the South Coast areas already ravaged by downpours earlier this month.
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 our changing global climate will bring to specific regions. It does seem fairly evident that such climactic changes have ramped up California’s extended drought potential, which in turn amplifies the threat of catastrophic wildfires. The Thomas fire raged into the biggest in the state’s recorded history — a record that, sadly, may not last.
As we said, hope for the best, plan for the worst, it could save your life.