A week into April, in the wake of one of the wettest Januarys and Februarys on record, Gov. Jerry Brown declared that the state’s drought emergency was over. Lawn watering, except in the face of an approaching storm, was no longer an uncivil act. Home owners needn’t snitch on lawn-watering neighbors any longer. Suburban life in SoCal would return to near normal because Mother Nature had resumed a more routine weather cycle. In fact, it hadn’t. The rainfall pattern had already reverted to a drought condition when the governor made his popular but premature announcement.

For five long years – it seemed even longer – high pressure ridges in the eastern Pacific blocked the usual storms that in the past had brought winter rain to SoCal. The rainy season in 2010-11 produced more than a normal rainfall, exceeding the 139 year annual average by over five inches. Over 20 inches of rain fell that season.

The next five seasons, 2011-2016, had a collective total of 38 inches of rain, averaging only half of the normal annual precipitation each year. We weren’t entirely dry, but for SoCal residents who know that 139 year average is roughly 15 inches per year, receiving only half of that amount was devastating to plant life.

Several neighbors lost their European birch, a graceful, white trunked tree that was spectacular in its appearance. That species could survive in our usual cycle of a couple of drier years followed by an extraordinarily wet one in which the rainfall was 20 or 30 inches. The 20 inches we may receive before the current season ends on September 30, however, can’t bring back those lost birches. It may, however, keep alive those that survived the drought.

That the rain gauge would reach beyond 20 inches this season was almost assured when, at the end of February, the weather bureau in Los Angeles had already recorded over 18 inches. Then came March and April.

March, traditionally, is not as wet as the other winter months. But its historic average of nearly 2.5 inches, on the heels of that wet January and February, looked promising. Instead, March 2017 was drier than any March in the preceding five drought years. The total Los Angeles rainfall for March 2017 was less than one-tenth of an inch. The normal for March is 2.43. In March of the wet year of 2011, 2.42 inches fell in one day! 

Old-timers will recall that in 1938, over 5 inches fell on March 2, part of a storm that wiped out bridges along the Los Angeles river and took a large toll in lost lives.

But this year, March was more like July or August. My water bill has a graph showing the amount of water I have used in each of the past 13 months. In January, and again in February, I used only 200 cubic feet. That was all household water since the sprinklers remained off during both of those rainy months. In March, however, with the sprinklers running again, I used 4700 cubic feet, almost as much as in a summer month.

So March 2017 was a bust. April isn’t far behind. Half way through the month, April had only one day of measurable rain, totaling less than a tenth of an inch. That in a month that normally has nine-tenths of an inch.

Gov. Brown should have included SoCal in the short list of counties which remain covered by the drought emergency. He didn’t.

Despite the lack of rain in late winter and spring in SoCal, the governor made his declaration based on what was a truly outstanding year for precipitation, either rain or snow, in northern California and the Sierra Nevada. The high pressure ridge that blocked the usual March and April rains here diverted storms to the coast of central and northern California.

Fortunately for those of us in SoCal, aqueducts will bring the surplus rainfall and snow melt south so that parched lawns and ailing trees can limp through the remaining dry months until the rains come again… if they do.

Ralph E. Shaffer is professor emeritus of history at Cal Poly Pomona. reshaffer@cpp.edu