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Where does this winter stack up in terms of historical rainfall?

Downtown Monterey Rain

People walking through downtown Monterey in the rainy weather that kicked off December 2022.

Good afternoon. 

David Schmalz here, thinking about the weather. Frankly, I’m starting to get tired of it. As I write this another atmospheric river—the 12th of the season—is sweeping over the Central Coast, and it’s starting to feel like it will never end: Wasn’t yesterday, after all, the first day of spring?

Having lived nearly my entire life in California, I can’t recall a winter where the rain seemed more consistent and the air felt more cold. And after reading reports on what might become record snowpack in the Sierra, I wondered: In Monterey County, how does this winter stack up historically in terms of precipitation? 

So yesterday I talked to Brian Garcia, the warning coordination meteorologist at the National Weather Service’s office in Monterey, and asked him: Might this winter be a record year locally in terms of rain? 

Garcia did a little digging and found that even in Monterey, where there is data going back to 1905, there are a lot of missing days over the subsequent years. The first year of consistent data is the 1947-48 water year (a water year runs from Oct. 1 to Sept. 30), so he decided to look at all the years going back to that one and see where they measure up. 

What he found, obviously, is that it has been a rainy year so far, but historic? Not quite. With 23.98 inches of rainfall recorded in Monterey as of yesterday afternoon, he says, this year to date (from Oct. 1 to March 20) has been the ninth wettest in Monterey since 1947-48. (It’s worth noting that, as always, some areas of Monterey County—including the high-elevation areas of Big Sur—have seen much more rainfall.) 

If the rain stops now, though, this will only rank as the 21st or 22nd wettest water year since 1947-48. Currently, the two top years are 1997-98, which saw 47.35 inches, and 1982-83 with 40.3 inches. The 2004-05 water year rounds out the top three with 30.53 inches.

As we move into spring, the odds of storms will continue to decrease. “We can see the light at the end of the tunnel,” Garcia says. “This winter will end, and there will be a lot of cleanup to do and preparation for next winter as we go into the summer months of heat, and fall of fire, and as we look to next winter of more floods.”

And even though the drought has officially ended in all of northern California, including the Central Coast, Garcia says when all the grasses and shrubs on the hills dry out by mid-summer—what he calls a “fine fuel crop”—the risk for fires will begin. And he adds that with heavier fuels like trees, it takes years for them to recover moisture lost from extended drought. “They lose moisture slowly, and they regain it slowly,” Garcia says. “We need sustained winter heavy precipitation to bring heavier fuels back to the state where they are more able to handle the impact of fire in the area, and not become just another matchstick in the forest.”

That sounds pretty bleak, but so does the prospect of several consecutive winters like this one. In any case, I’m ready for this rainy season to be over.  

(1) comment

Walter Wagner

It may not be the wettest season overall, but we had the hardest rainfall in March causing the Salinas River to crest higher than I've seen it before. The Davis Crossing flooded much higher than usual, and the water flowed through old channels that had been made into strawberry fields, causing serious loss of acreage from erosion. Same high-water problem on the Pajaro River caused the levee failure.

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