Rain year and vulture spring


April 3, 2017

Michael Raffety

The San Jose Mercury wrote March 8 that this year’s rain broke a record that held for 122 years.

The actual record sounds puny to us in the foothills. The record for October 2016 through February 2017 is 27.1 inches. That figure is actually an average that comes from the National Centers for Environmental Information, part of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

More specifically it’s a “weighted average of values observed at weather stations across the state,” Nina Oakley told the Mercury News. Oakley is a California climate specialist with the Western Regional Climate Center, also part of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

By the way, the California average record for a rain year was 40.41 inches in 1982-83.

Here’s how Daniel Swain of the Weather West’s California Weather Blog put it: “Now that we’re more than 2/3 of the way through California’s wet season, it’s pretty clear that much of the state has experienced its wettest 3-6 month period on record. Virtually every corner of the state is above average to date, though anomalies have been much more impressive in the north. The Northern Sierra watersheds are currently sitting at just above 200% of average precipitation for the season to date–a rather extraordinary statistic. If California receives at least average precipitation for the rest of the season, 2016-2017 would become the state’s wettest Water Year on record.”

The state and federal water managers use a rain year that starts in October. The Mountain Democrat, using a more traditional rain year that begins July 1 and runs through June 30 of the following years. This is the rain year that Western States Power Co. and its successor PG&E used.

As of the end of February the Mountain Democrat has recorded 56.38 inches for the 2016-2017.

The 143-year average for the four months remaining in this rain year totals 10.79 inches. If every month hits its average, the rain year could end June 30 with 67.17 inches. That would be a lot of precipitation but not a record. Hitting 67 inches is doubtful at this point. March is not looking like it will even hit its average of 6.16 inches.

The state’s big rain year was 1982-83. In El Dorado County PG&E recorded 72.88 inches in Placerville in 1982-83. That followed 1981-82 rain year that saw 63.64 inches recorded. In 1983 a huge hillside gave way from the PG&E canal down. It was part of an ancient landslide that slid again. It blocked the South Fork of the American River, creating a lake, and it buried Highway 50 for 75 days. The lake is gone, but there is a real wide spot in the road there now. PG&E replaced that damaged flume section with a tunnel.

That rain year had real consequences, but it didn’t break the record. The biggest rain year was 78.13 inches in 1889-90.

This rain year, with 56.38 inches as of the end of February, puts it in the top 13 out of 144 complete rain years. By June 30 it could whittle that down to a smaller number of years.

This year with heavy and steady rain in January and February hitting almost 18 inches each of those two months, the damage has been substantial. El Dorado Irrigation District has a rough estimate of total damage of $15 million-$18 million. El Dorado County’s road and bridge damages are in the same ballpark, but I’m guessing it will be more like $20 million to $25 million for road and bridge damages.

Despite the mudslides and disappearing roads and bridges, it is spring. At our house that means vulture romance, which includes a lot of swooping low and perching in nearby trees.

What I did not expect to see was actual mating, an event that took place on a large rock about 20 feet away from our side deck.. After it ended the male flopped down the rock, looking exhausted. I half expected him to smoke a cigarette.


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