The future of rain in Sonoma County
We’ve gotten a lot of rain lately. A lot. Underline that sentence there: A lot.
I mean, we’re still getting it.
No one would ever dare think or whisper or say that it’s been too much rain. At least, I don’t think.
I think it’s been glorious.
The Russian River is plump again, running like the chocolate river from Willy Wonka.
The Laguna de Santa Rosa looks like an actual reservoir that can support the aviary life that call it home.
And personally, the dozens of sunflower seeds my youngest and I sprinkled throughout our lawn last summer have finally sprouted and are now at least a foot tall, threating to create a front-yard forest of sunflowers.
All thanks to the rain.
Since the new rain season began October 2021, Santa Rosa has been drenched by a whopping 19-and-counting inches. And I do mean drenched.
Do you remember the Oct. 24 rain in which parts of the county received 10 inches? We went from cracked and parched creekbeds to jumping up and down in muddy puddles within a matter of days.
Yet despite that rainfall, according to Sonoma Water, the region is still in a drought.
“We had two very dry years in a row and unfortunately, that big October rain didn’t just take us out of the drought,” said Jay Jasperse, chief engineer and director of groundwater management at Sonoma Water. “The deficit is just too large.”
In other words, keep dreaming about that 20-minute shower.
Jasperse spends part of his time at Sonoma Water studying climate, or long-term weather patterns.
“Weather,” he reminded me, “is anything within the next 15 days. Climate is really anything longer. Decades.”
Since his time at Sonoma Water, he’s identified the county’s climate.
“Historical climate data shows we’ve always had atmospheric rivers,” Jasperse said, noting the area would be hit a few times a year.
“This is a specific subset, which most people might have heard called ‘Pineapple Express,’” Jasperse said. “Sonoma County is in this odd place where sometimes we get them and sometimes we don’t.”
That’s because, latitude-wise, Jasperse explained, Sonoma County sits in a ‘transition zone,” which makes our climate a bit more unpredictable.
Jasperse explains that Sonoma County’s climate oscillates -- though rarely regularly -- between atmostpheric rivers and drought, Jasperse said.
“Atmopsheric rivers are a primary feature of the west coast,” Jasperse said. “They’re responsible for significant flood damage in the 11 western states.”
The location with the most recurrent flood damage within those 11 states?
“Sonoma County,” Jasperse said. “Next is Los Angeles County.”
Also like, Los Angeles, Sonoma County experiences drought. Ask local farmers and they can list historical droughts with different memories: the 1976-1977 drought established water rationing and cost the state at least $2.6 billion; the 2012-2013 drought brought back memories of water rationing to reality.
Barry Dugan, principal programs specialist with Sonoma Water, remembers traveling with his family during the ‘76 drought and seeing taps and spouts at gas stations and rest stops either locked or closed. Public access to water had been cut off.
The current drought has created similar situations, with the state curtailing water rights locally this past August to 1,500 holders who rely on the Russian River as a water source. Additionally some West Sonoma County residents were trucking water in over summer as their wells had run dry.
In response to the ever worsening situation, Jasperse and his colleagues at Sonoma Water have created a Climate Adapation Plan that should enable the county to withstand what Jasperse calls a future where “droughts will be droughtier and floods will be more intense.”
Released in Oct. 2021, the plan creates a long-term strategy for trying to make sure there’s enough water for our people, animals and agriculture.
“We’re trying to operate more dynamically,” Jasperse said.
At the forefront of the conversation of the Climate Adapation Plan is temperature. Jasperse noted that, while California has experienced multi-year droughts, it’s never had such a long drought in such extreme temperatures.
“Our hottest days have been in the most recent years,” Jasperse said. “And when you combine those temperatures, the impacts of the drought multiplies.”
The agency’s report predicts droughts through mid-century could be 20% worse than historical droughts.
Sonoma Water is planning critically by creating redundancies in its system.
What’s that look like?
It looks like working the with U.S. Army Corps of Engineer on projects like injecting water back into the aquifer or taking water from the Russian River and expanding opportunities for reuse in Sonoma.
“We’re trying operate more dynamically and use the winter water more and storing it more when we actually have it available,” Jasperse said.
Learn about the Climate Adaptation Plan at sonomawater.org/climate.