Stormy weather does not mean an end to California’s drought

Rain brings a sense of normalcy to Sacramento this week. Our February is supposed to be stormy – not 70 degrees. Forecasters predict about two-thirds of an inch of rain will fall today and tonight in Sacramento, with 1 to 2 inches expected in the foothills. At elevations above 7,000 feet, Sierra resorts may see a foot of fresh snow. More rain and snow are predicted for this weekend.

But local and state officials worry this moisture may wash away the growing drought awareness and dampen residents’ commitment to saving water. This rain is not a panacea for our parched landscape, they caution. It’s a mere puddle in the path of a very dry year.

With that in mind, here are five things you’ll want to know about how this incoming storm could impact our ongoing drought:

If it’s raining, does that mean the drought is over?

No. Let’s not forget Sacramento went 52 days without rain in the middle of the rainy season, a new all-time record. It takes a lot of storms to make up for that.

The same deficit affects the snowpack in the Sierra Nevada, source of all the snowmelt Sacramento and the state need to survive our bone-dry summers. As of Tuesday, the Sierra Nevada snowpack was only 22 percent of average for the date, and 19 percent of average for the entire season (which runs through April 1).

How far behind are we?

The annual average rainfall for Sacramento is about 20 inches. We’ve received about 5 inches so far, so we are 15 inches behind. The two storms expected this week are predicted to deliver about 2 inches of rain in Sacramento. If so, we would still be about 13 inches behind.

For the Sierra Nevada snowpack, let’s look at the so-called eight-station average, which covers a region of the Northern Sierra crucial for statewide water supplies, including the American River, which serves Sacramento. The average annual precipitation in the eight-station index is about 50 inches of moisture. The total so far is about 13 inches, which puts us 37 inches behind.

The two storms this week are predicted to deliver about 3 inches of precipitation at Blue Canyon on the American River, one measurement point in the eight-station index. If so, that station would total 16 inches for the season so far, or 34 inches behind average.

To put all this in perspective, the National Weather Service recently estimated there is only a 1-in-1,000 chance California will end winter with merely average precipitation. That’s what happens when you lose December and January from the rainfall picture.

What does this mean for my garden?

First, turn off the sprinklers if you haven’t already. This round is on Mother Nature.

This week’s rain is a welcome, deep drink for thirsty gardens. Each inch represents a week’s worth of irrigation for a typical landscape. If we get 2 inches, that’s two weeks – unless we get more unseasonably warm weather. (Heat speeds evaporation.)

Before you resume irrigation, check the moisture level of your soil. Use a soil probe or long thin screwdriver (even a plain wooden chopstick works) or dig a hole with a trowel. If the soil looks or feels moist 4 inches to 6 inches down, keep the sprinklers off. Plant roots can still reach that reserve.

During the storm, watch where the water flows and collects. That will give you clues for ways to gather water from future storms.

Can I save any of this rain for later?

Yes – but it’s got to stay outdoors. Because the water is untreated, city officials limit the uses to landscape.

“In the city of Sacramento, customers can collect rainwater to use on their plants in their yard,” said Jessica Hess, spokeswoman for the city’s utilities department. “Customers can use rain barrels or buckets to collect the water for use on their plants or lawn only.”

But watch out for mosquitoes.

“We encourage customers to be mindful that these collections might become mosquito breeding locations,” Hess said.

Screens or fine mesh netting are available for rain barrels and other collection systems. Most rain barrel systems are closed to prevent contamination and mosquito intrusions. Products such as Mosquito Dunks can be added to rain barrels to kill mosquito larvae.

The trick with saving rainwater: You need a lot of surface area to collect very much.

“It’s all about surface area,” said Elk Grove landscape architect Sheri Noblett, a rain collection expert. “A bucket may be only 10 inches across; there’s not much surface area. We could have 4 inches in this storm, but that only amounts to 4 inches in the bucket. You would have to have buckets cover your entire yard to get any significant amount.

“That’s why the roof is such a natural for rain collection,” she added. “It’s already sloped and brings the water to one point of capture (the downspouts).”

On the verge of a storm, the simplest thing to do right now is to redirect the downspouts so water runs off into the yard where it can soak down into the ground, Noblett said.

“We’re trained to drain, to get the water away from the house and off our property,” she said. “You don’t want it to pool around your foundation, but there are ways to keep more of that water on your property and available for your landscape.”

Get a flexible diverter hose or downspout adapter, Noblett suggested. “You can connect it to the downspout and move water away from the house and onto garden beds and lawn.”

What should I do before the next storm?

“First thing, mulch,” Noblett said. “If you haven’t already, add a layer of mulch around your shrubs and trees right after this storm. It will help keep the moisture in the ground longer and slows down evaporation.”

Mulch is the simplest and cheapest water saver; 2 inches to 3 inches will save 30 gallons per 1,000 square feet of landscape every time you irrigate. Other solutions require more effort and expense.

Rain chains – which attach to the gutter system – can help direct water to slowly diffuse into the landscape instead of quickly running off into drains. Rain gardens – swales built into the landscape to capture storm water – also can keep more water on site and let it recharge your soil’s reserves. A dry well built into a patio can capture storm water, too.

“Look at adding rain barrels,” said Noblett, noting that starter kits are available for under $100. “You can collect a lot. With 1 inch of rain, 400 square feet of roof area with two downspouts will yield 120 gallons. The average rain barrel holds 55 to 60 gallons. That 1 inch of rain is enough to water 120 plants for a week; with low-water plants, you could squeak by for two weeks or a month. It really adds up. It might help salvage your landscape.”

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