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Tuesday, Dec 31 2013 05:04 PM

Bakersfield has wetter 2013 than Baghdad by the Bay

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    By Casey Christie / The Californian

    A pedestrian trying to stay dry during a light rain this fall walks past "Sun Catcher," the metal sculpture along Truxtun Avenue by local artist Betty Younger. Bakersfield didn't get much rain in 2013, but it was more than San Francisco got.

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BY MARK GROSSI Fresno Bee

How crazy dry was 2013 in California? The desert landscape in Bakersfield wound up with more rainfall than lush San Francisco.

Gray, foggy December days moved north from the Central Valley into Oregon.

And Fresno and Los Angeles both endured their driest calendar year on record.

State leaders have not yet declared a drought, but rainfall has been subpar over the last two winters. After a dry December, NOAA's Climate Prediction Center continues to forecast below-average precipitation for the third consecutive winter.

Blue skies and above-average temperatures may be delightful, but they are alarming to farmers, city officials and industry leaders all over the state.

Where's the rainfall?

"It's just not happening," said meteorologist Jim Dudley of the National Weather Service's office in Hanford. "It doesn't look like the first part of January will be much different."

Is it El Nino, La Nina or any other phenomenon in the Pacific Ocean?

Scientists are not seeing a big connection between the dry year and the ocean, said scientist Nicholas Bond of NOAA's Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory in Seattle.

There is no ocean warming of El Nino or cooling of La Nina. Shallow water temperatures along the equator in the Pacific are neutral this year.

Meantime, a stubborn high pressure system has been bouncing storms to the north, preventing California, Oregon and Washington from getting the usual rain and snow.

"We didn't see any indication that this dry pattern would develop in the far West," Bond said. "But it may be too early to panic. There's a lot of the winter left, and California's wet season is typically the strongest in January."

This is no typical rainfall time in California, however. Bakersfield has only 3.43 inches of rain this year, half its normal 6.47 inches. But historically, 2013 is only Bakersfield's ninth driest year since record-keeping began in 1889.

The city's driest year was 1959, with just 1.87 inches falling on what must have been a parched and desolate city landscape.

For Sacramento, Yosemite, Fresno and Los Angeles, 2013 will go down as the driest year ever.

In the past, there have been big rainfall months during droughts for Fresno and Bakersfield. During a six-year drought, Fresno recorded 7.24 inches of rain in March 1991. Bakersfield had 4.33 inches the same month. Many dubbed it the Miracle March.

But a stubborn ridge of air over the West Coast is pushing away any miracles right now and helping to create an odd precipitation picture.

Bakersfield on the arid southern end of the Valley picked up more rainfall this year than Fresno's meagerly 3.01 inches, due to some southerly storms.

Even stranger, San Francisco -- averaging more than 3 inches of rain in December alone -- has only 3.38 inches for the entire year, meteorologist Dudley said.

Perhaps more unsettling is the Sierra snowpack, where about 60 percent of the state's water resides each year. The snowpack is less than one-quarter of its average size. The southern range, which feeds the Kern River, Bakersfield's lifeblood, is in only slightly better shape at about 32 percent of normal for late December.

Reservoirs, the state's drought buffers, are dropping. The largest reservoir, Shasta in Northern California, is only a little more than one-third full, which is 58 percent of average for late December.

Isabella Lake, fed by the Kern, is at just 10 percent of capacity, alarmingly lower than 27 percent, which is normal for this time of year. But Bakersfield has historically had an advantage during drought years: its vast, natural aquifer, which can "bank" groundwater in wet years for use in dry years.

The aquifer can easily hold more than 2 million acre-feet of water. By comparison, when Isabella Lake is at normal capacity, it holds 568,000 acre-feet.

Unlike Fresno and some other California cities that have occasionally implemented forms of urban water rationing during drought years, Bakersfield has not. But another dry year or two could deplete Bakersfield's ace in the hole. That's why water managers are asking residents to voluntarily conserve.

Some scientists say the West's dry spell is a preview of future droughts, which are expected to occur more often as the climate warms, said Bond of NOAA's laboratory in Seattle.

"No doubt it's a wake-up call, and a lesson in how we will have to adapt," he said. "But I think I'd rather just get the rainfall this year."

-- Californian staff writer Steven Mayer contributed to this report.

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