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January 2022 on track to be driest January on record in parts of California

SF Gate logo SF Gate 1/22/2022 Amy Graff
New Melones Reservoir, a large lake (842,513 acre-feet) straddling Tuolumne and Calaveras counties and capturing the flow of the Stanislaus River, near Tuttletown, California. © George Rose/Getty Images

New Melones Reservoir, a large lake (842,513 acre-feet) straddling Tuolumne and Calaveras counties and capturing the flow of the Stanislaus River, near Tuttletown, California.

California is in the heart of its wet season, and there’s no strong signal for rain through the end of January.

With not a drop in sight over the next 10 days, some parts of Northern California are on track to see the driest January on record.

“Jan 2022 won’t be the driest on record for all of NorCal (including SF) just based on what has already fallen,” UCLA climate scientist Daniel Swain wrote on Twitter. “But it will likely be so across much of Central Valley and central/southern Sierra Nevada, particularly south of I-80 corridor.”

Swain shared a map on Twitter showing vast areas of the Golden State — including areas of Northern California and the majority of Southern California — that have seen 0.1 inches or less of rain in January. 

Far Northern California and the San Francisco Bay Area have generally seen below-normal rainfall in January but more than some of the exceptionally dry areas. The gauge in downtown SF has recorded 0.61 inches since the start of the month, compared to the 2.99 inches that are normal for this point in the month.

The dry pattern is the opposite of what California saw in December 2021 when a parade of storms soaked the state and piled up snow in the Sierra Nevada. In November, Northern California saw one significant storm, but the month was generally dry statewide. And then there was October, when a historic storm categorized as an atmospheric river drowned Northern California in rain.

Swain calls the back-and-forth between wet and dry “precipitation whiplash.”


Video: Sacramento Local Forecast: January 2, 2022 (KXTV-TV Sacramento)

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Dry periods aren’t unusual in California in the winter and usually occur when a ride of high pressure sets up over the region. That’s the setup the region is experiencing right now.

Mike Anderson, state climatologist with the California Department of Water Resources, said the La Niña conditions that are currently present in the eastern tropical Pacific Ocean favor a wintertime atmospheric circulation with high pressure somewhere over the Pacific Ocean.

“For January, that high pressure system has been just offshore of California which has pushed storms up into the Pacific Northwest and even up into Alaska,” Anderson wrote in an email. “The high pressure system was further west closer to the international date line in December which allowed storms to drop out of the Gulf of Alaska offshore of California enabling abundant precipitation and snowfall to occur. It remains to be seen if the high pressure will move out of the way before our wet season ends.”

This is bad news in a state struggling with drought, despite the wet start of the season suggesting that the state may be headed into a drought-busting winter. 

Anderson said the wet December certainly helped but the drought is far from over. 

“We are working to overcome a record-setting drought and missing a key month of rainfall sets us back,” Anderson wrote. “On average December-January-February is when half our annual rainfall occurs and one-third of that time period is dry for this year. That is challenging for any water year and more so after a record setting two-year period. For reference, 2020-2021 recorded less precipitation statewide than 1976-1977, which was the previous low mark for two-year rainfall.”

Jeanine Jones, the drought manager for the California Department of Water Resources, told SFGATE last week that the state of the water supply in California won’t be clear until the end of the wet season.

“An important point to make from a water management perspective is that we’re only midway through January,” Jones said. “We’ve gone through about six weeks of our wettest period, and we won’t know until end of March what our complete water year is like. Northern California did well with the December storms, but Southern California, not so much. We are one state so we have to think about Southern California as well. With La Niña conditions in place, it’s likely Southern California will be dry this year, and this is in fact the [National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration] outlook.”

The good news is that there’s some suggestion of rain in early February. “What we’re seeing from the forecast models is that as we get into the beginning of February, we’ll start to see a change in the weather pattern,” said Brooke Bingaman, a forecaster with the National Weather Service’s Bay Area office. “That should start to bring more storm systems into Northern California.”

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