Wednesday, January 15, 2014
The Great Drought of the 70s
Stepping outside to start up the barbecue Sunday afternoon, enjoying the bright afternoon sun and temperature around 60, I had a flashback. If you’re from the Midwest or Northeast, you might want to stop reading right now.
This has been an uncommonly dry winter. In fact since December of 2012, our last really wet month, there has been no rain to speak of. The average would be 5-6 inches each month from November to March, and it’s not unusual for us to get 20 inches for two months combined in a wet winter.
Which got me thinking about the drought of 1975-77, the worst that Central California has experienced since they started keeping records not long after the Gold Rush.
Nothing Like It Before
The winter of 1974-75 was drier than normal, but not by an alarming amount, and it had been preceded by two wet winters. But the 1975-76 winter was unreal: Day after day of sunshine and no rain. Total rainfall for the July-June rainfall year was just under 9 inches. An average year was 21 inches, and this was the first time in 100 years of record-keeping that the area had failed to register at least 10 inches. A once-in-a-lifetime experience.
Then it happened again next year. The 1976-77 winter generated a little over 9 inches of rainfall. Scientists checking the rings of the giant sequoias said something like this had happened a few hundred years ago, but not within living memory.
I was covering the weather for the newspaper at the time, and it was an almost daily story. Watsonville was able to get by fairly normally by overdrawing its underground aquifer (at a price to be paid later), but Santa Cruz, which relies on surface runoff for its supply was on strict rationing.
Entrepreneurs stepped forth. My friend John Bakalian introduced the Bakalian Brick. Put it in your toilet tank, and it reduces the volume per flush, at a fraction of the cost of retrofitting. Great idea, but it created more publicity than wealth.
Lies, Damn Lies, and Weathermen
One positive story from all this was that Linda and I were able to have an outdoor wedding on March 19, 1977, normally an iffy proposition at that time of year. But by that time, after two years of unprecedented drought, all was gloom and doom. State water stories by the wire services and metropolitan newspapers were quoting expert meteorologists as saying it would take three years of above-average rainfall to fill the state’s reservoirs once again. We rarely have three wet winters in a row.
The weather stayed mostly clear and dry into the middle of December, and the sky-is-falling crowd was going crazy with warnings about the shortages we would be facing next summer.
And then, a few days before Christmas of 1977, a big storm moved in, dumping two inches of rain on our area. It was soon followed by another. And another. And another. And another. At one point the San Francisco Examiner reported that a “daisy chain” of storms was moving across the Pacific Ocean toward California.
After six weeks of rain the state’s reservoirs were full, and the same meteorologists who had been saying it would take years to recover, were announcing that the drought was over, and doing it without a hint of irony or explanation as to how they had been so wrong before. I haven’t believed a weatherman since.
Originally posted February 26, 2013; revised January 15, 2014.