Rainfall earlier this week may have refreshed parched lawns and hillsides, but it did not come close to assuaging Ventura County's worst recorded drought.
"It was a step in the right direction, but we still have a large deficit," said John Weikle, a hydrologist with Ventura County Flood Control.
That deficit has been growing over the past three years, putting Ventura County into its fourth year of drought--the longest continuous period of low rainfall since 1867, when weather records were first kept here, Weikle said.
As of Dec. 31, the county received 21% of the rainfall typical for the so-called "rainy season," which began Oct. 1. The normal amount is about 4.48 inches.
Monday night's showers only dropped .16 inches of rain on the county and brought snow levels down to 3,500 feet. But with no moisture for all of December and predictions of just 30% of the normal 38.7 inches of rain for January, the outlook is bleak. According to the National Weather Service, temperatures are expected to be higher than normal for the next 90 days and rainfall will be low, only adding to the county's water deficit.
"Right now is a critical period since it is our wet period and it's looking very dry," Weikle said.
In only 10 other years since 1867 has there been no rain in December in Ventura County. The county hasn't come close to reaching normal levels since 1986, said Bill Minger, a hydrographer with Ventura County Flood Control. Rainfall levels for 1987 only hit 45% of the average and in 1988 they rose to 82%. Normal yearly rainfall in the county is 18 to 20 inches; last year, the rainfall was 8.23 inches.
Water levels for the county's two large reservoirs--Lake Casitas and Lake Piru--have lowered, but the lakes have not been imperiled by the drought, according to water officials.
Dick Barnett, head of the Casitas Municipal Water District, said Lake Casitas is 35 feet below its maximum level of 567 feet and is 60% full. It is lower than it has been at any time since 1969, but recreation, wildlife and the water supply are not endangered, he said.
If the drought continues, Lake Casitas could last another five to seven years before dropping to a point where it couldn't be used as drinking water, Barnett said.
Lake Piru now is about 45% full. Officials of the United Water Conservation District said boating and fishing on the lake have not been hindered.
Underground water levels are also being depleted because more water is being pumped out of the aquifers, said Earl McPhail, county agricultural commissioner.
"What normally happens this time of year is that we shut off the main pumps and rely on rainwater, but we're having to keep pumps running and that's happened the past three years," McPhail said.
He said an extra 10,000 acre-feet of water were pumped this year and about 8,000 acre-feet were pumped last year. In 1987, between 8,000 and 10,000 acre-feet of water were pumped.
Greg Middleton, a hydrologist with United Water Conservation District, said several of the district's wells have dropped to record low levels.
McPhail said if overpumping continues, underground water supplies could be seriously depleted and might last only another 10 to 20 years, which may lead to stiffer water conservation measures.
"If we don't see a somewhat wet year and some kind of relief from the drought we've been experiencing, we'll see most of the cities along the Southern California coast rationing water within a few years," Middleton said.
However, he said the drought may not be all that odd--it may just be a regular weather cycle for Southern California's typical dry climate.
"We might be in a very normal weather pattern right now for this area, which has a very arid climate. We may have enjoyed a very wet period for the last 100 years and this dry period is very normal," Middleton said.
Terry Schaeffer, an agricultural meteorologist with the National Weather Service, said that because the area is an arid, semi-desert climate, dry patterns may hit, but there is no way of telling if this is the beginning of a dry cycle.
He said Ventura County rainfall totals at the end of 1958 were very similar to this year's. Then in the first few months of 1959, the area received substantial rainfall. And that is what most officials seem to be looking for--rain in the first part of this year.
"The only thing we can hope for now is some wet weather in January and February," McPhail said.