LITTLE RIVER, 5/6/21 — It’s no secret that it’s been dry in Mendocino this year. The rainy season brought little precipitation to speak of and now, in early May, the grass is already turning from a dark, lush green to dry, golden brown. But just how dry is it out there? We decided to take a look.
The latest information from the U.S. Drought Monitor shows all of Mendocino County experiencing some sort of drought. Most of the county is in an “extreme drought.” Which, according to the Monitor’s definition means that fires may occur in areas typically thought of as too wet to burn, low river levels impede fish migration, and wells and aquifer levels decrease, among many other things. The Monitor, which is produced by the National Drought Mitigation Center, the United States Department of Agriculture, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, has a full definition of ‘extreme drought’ on their website.
While the county has faced similarly dry years in the past — ‘75 to ‘77 was comparable — climate change has made the effects of droughts more severe over the last 40 plus years. As temperatures rise, all sources of water lose more to evaporation than they used to, soil dries out faster, ecosystems struggle, and water quality decreases. The result is an extraordinarily precarious situation, especially for an area like Mendocino that has a Mediterranean climate, and goes months without even a drop of rain falling from the sky.
This categorization of extreme drought isn’t exactly surprising considering how little precipitation fell on the county over the last two years.
Ukiah only got 13.48 inches of rain this rain year (October 1 to September 31) around one-third of the 20th century average, which is 37.31 inches, according to information provided by the National Weather Service’s Eureka office. Last water year, Ukiah received 14.75 inches.
Over on the coast, Fort Bragg got 22.35 inches this rain year, which is just over half of the average from 1900 to 2000, which is 38.3 inches. And last year the city counted 24 inches of rain.
Up north, Eureka received 23.01 inches of rain this rain year, and 30.51 last year.
The last time our region saw comparably dry back-to-back years was in the 1970s. In the 1975 to 1976 water year, Fort Bragg received 38.8 inches, Ukiah got 19.48, and 34.8 fell on Eureka. During the following rain year, 1976 to 1977, 16.56 inches hit Fort Bragg, 16.1 landed in Ukiah and Eureka received 19.17 inches.
Two years of little rain have greatly depleted reservoirs and aquifers, leaving wells dry, crops struggling, and increasing fire risk. To make matters worse, temperatures have risen, leading to more evaporation — both from the soil and from reservoirs.
Adrian Fernandez Baumann contributed to this article.