This year’s El Niño was the strongest on record, according to assistant physics professor Ryan Walter. But Central California is nowhere near being out of the drought.
Walter said during El Niño there are “warmer than normal waters in the equatorial Pacific Ocean,” causing an increase in rainfall. Because of this year’s El Niño, the weather broke records in terms of temperature.
But in terms of rainfall, “El Niño turned out to really be el nothing,” Cal Poly’s Director of Agricultural Operations Kevin Piper said.
This year’s lack of rain can be blamed on a “warm blob” in the Pacific Ocean, according to Walter. The “warm blob” threw off ocean and weather temperatures in 2014 before El Niño. These different environmental conditions may explain why this El Niño was drier than the past El Niño.
“El Niño doesn’t guarantee rainfall,” Walter said.
This weaker-than-expected El Niño did little to resolve the drought conditions caused by the last five years of below-average rainfall here in San Luis Obispo County.
The average rainfall for San Luis Obispo is 24 inches per year. So far this year, San Luis Obispo has had approximately 18 inches, despite the expected heavier rainfall, according to San Luis Obispo County Water Resources. This has brought San Luis Obispo county reservoirs down to levels substantially lower than years past and far below its actual water capacity.
“A drought is like a bank account, you have all these withdrawals. For the last four of five years, we’ve just been taking water out without replenishing it,” Walter said. “One year of a strong deposit doesn’t necessarily defeat the four years of withdrawals.”
The effect on reservoirs
Noah Evans has seen the lack of precipitation first-hand as the supervisor of Whale Rock Reservoir, located by Cayucos, Calif. The reservoir is where Cal Poly and most of San Luis Obispo gets its water. This year has been a normal precipitation year — nothing above average from El Niño, according to Evans.
Video by Joel Escareno
“In order to get out of the drought we really need a couple of moist years overall to fill Whale Rock Reservoir,” Evans said.
The effect on agriculture
Chief Deputy Agricultural Commissioner Brenda Ouwerkerk confirmed El Niño has not restored San Luis Obispo to normal levels, but said it was an overall positive change from last year.
However, the drought is still in emergency status. Some of the measures taken to alleviate drought conditions are decreasing herd sizes, buying time by “stumping” thirsty crops like avocado trees and reevaluating irrigation systems, Ouwerkerk said.
San Luis Obispo County ranchers lost 75 percent of its cattle in the past few years, she said. This year, however, grazing, land conditions, vineyards and some crops have improved from the rainfall the county received.
Cal Poly has also struggled with maintaining livestock and crop numbers, according to Piper. A large amount of Cal Poly’s crops and animals have been impacted — fruits such as apples, pears, apricots and avocados as well as livestock and vineyards.
As summer approaches and land gets drier, Piper said any effects from the rainfall are going to dry up and people will have to start compensating with the water resources from the reservoirs and wells.
“We’re closely monitoring our soil conditions, as well as plant conditions. And we’re really trying to time irrigations more effectively rather than just getting in a routine,” Piper said. “We’re only turning the water on when we really need to.”
According to Beef Operations Manager Aaron Lazanoff, Cal Poly’s cattle herd was reduced by 60 percent in the past few years due to the drought. The herd went from 285 cattle grazing in Cal Poly’s ranches throughout San Luis Obispo County to 188.
The cattle are mainly affected by the depletion of grass and lower levels of drinking water, Lazanoff said.
Video by Allison Edmonds
“We rely on a lot of springs that come out on the top of the hills, and we gravity feed all of our water troughs from those springs,” Lazanoff said. “Some of the springs have completely dried up in the last three years.”
Lazanoff said in order to protect the cattle from the drought they ensure there are not too many in the herd, they’ve added pumps for water, updated the grazing system and only allow cows on 5 percent of the ranch at one time. These new methods have “really helped our perennial growth and protected our riparian areas and increased a lot of the green grasses that grow on the lower ground,” Lazanoff said.
Too high of expectations
Agricultural workers weren’t the only ones hoping for more rain, KSBY’s Chief Meteorologist David Hovde said there was less rainfall than he expected.
“I think expectations outran reality,” Hovde said in an email. “Bad narratives by some scientists calling it ‘Godzilla’ El Niño was not helpful.”
Last summer, experts quoted in The New York Times said this year’s El Niño would bring record amounts of rain. Though there was more rainfall this year than the Central Coast has had since 2010, it was still below average, according to Cal Poly’s Irrigation Training and Research Center.
According to Hovde, a La Niña is expected this next rain season, which is associated with generally warm and dry winters locally.
“It could be several years before conditions even have a chance to improve locally,” Hovde said.