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Help wanted: rainmaker

L.A. is having its driest year ever. The only things falling are chutists taking advantage of clear skies.

March 06, 2007|Hector Becerra and Sara Lin Times Staff Writers | Times Staff Writers

Put away that umbrella and hold on to that moisturizer.

The National Weather Service on Monday declared that Los Angeles is experiencing its driest year on record.

Only about 2.40 inches of rain has fallen on downtown Los Angeles since July 1, and there's no sign of rain through at least the middle of this month.

Forecasters expected February -- historically Los Angeles' wettest month -- to provide some relief, but it didn't. Now, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's weather models suggest that a La Nina climate pattern is emerging in the Pacific, continuing the drought-like conditions.

The prolonged dry spell contributed to an unusually long fire season, rife with Santa Ana winds that have extended into March.

The last time it was remotely this dry was 1924, when 2.50 inches of rain had fallen.

"We've never had a drier year on record so far," said Eric Boldt, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Oxnard. "If nothing significant happens in March, then we've pretty much run out of time."

Only two years ago, Southern California's rainfall was posed to set an all-time record. In the end, 2005 turned out to be only the second-wettest, but the precipitation helped the area avoid more severe drought conditions this year.

Local aquifers were filled to the rim in 2005, so water supplies generally are solid.

Heavy snow in the Sierra Nevada -- another key source of local water -- has also helped. California's reservoirs are actually running above normal this year. Pyramid Lake and Diamond Valley Lake -- two major local reservoirs -- are at more than 90% of capacity.

Still, the dry weather is taking its toll -- from dry hands, lips and throats to parched plants and migrating insects.

"If we don't have a green spring, we're not going to see many insects over the next couple of months," said Doug Yanega, senior museum scientist at UC Riverside's Entomology Research Museum.

The arid weather is already having unusual implications for butterfly aficionados.

There will be no great painted lady butterfly migration like the one that swept across Southern California in spring 2005 after record-breaking rains, said Ring T. Carde, a professor of entomology at UC Riverside.

The lack of rain means fewer wildflowers for caterpillars to eat, he said.

Jacob Prieto, a downtown Los Angeles museum guard, said the dry weather has him reaching for his moisturizer.

Even native California plants are suffering under the dry conditions. Gardeners at South Coast Botanic Garden on the Palos Verdes Peninsula have seen more dry and brown leaves in their drought-resistant Mediterranean and California plants.

Those plants usually rely exclusively on California's winter rains, said Tanya Finney, who leads the gardening staff on the 87-acre property.

"We don't normally have to supplement the water in the winter," she said. "But this year it's been so dry that we've started hand-watering things we usually don't, like our rosemary and salvia."

The dry weather has devastated more than a dozen wheat farmers in Riverside County who depend solely on winter rains to water their crops.

Dennis Blehm, 56, of Triple B Farms estimated that he would lose about $1 million in failed wheat harvests.

"It's definitely a trying time," said Blehm, a third-generation farmer. "But when you're born and raised in it, you tend to stick with it."

Ski resorts in the San Bernardino Mountains are trying to put their best face on the lack of snow.

"Of course we've lacked natural snowfall, but it's been one of best seasons ever as far as snow-making goes," said Marty Ward, spokesman for Snow Summit and Bear Mountain ski resorts.

The dryness has not been all bad. Skydivers have turned up in large numbers at Perris Valley Airport because of the clear weather.

"There's no doubt that business has picked up," said Mary Tortomasi, spokeswoman for the airport.

What a difference two years makes.

More than 37 inches of rain fell in downtown Los Angeles during the 2004-05 rainfall season, which missed the all-time record by less than an inch.

In February alone, 11 inches of rain fell that year. But this year, February brought only 0.92 of an inch of rain. Considering that it is usually the year's wettest month, it does not bode well for a last-minute comeback.

"Either we're going to get major rains now, or that's it," Boldt said.

Right now, Los Angeles' rainfall is more than 9 inches below normal. It's unlikely that the region will record anything close to a normal rainfall total no matter what happens the rest of the season.

"We're not going to get close to normal unless something biblical happens," said William Patzert, a climatologist for the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in La Canada Flintridge.

Southern California and much of the West is in a drought pattern, Patzert said, and has been for several years.

He said that unless something dramatic happens, Los Angeles could very well break the record for driest winter, which occurred in 2001-02.

"Nobody wants to come in second or third, but there are consequences to coming in first," Patzert said. "And none of those consequences are good."

Assistant Fire Chief John Todd of the Los Angeles County Fire Department's forestry division said the gusty Santa Anas that pose the largest fire danger normally begin to die out by February.

But so far, they have persisted into March, he said.

"We've had more windstorms than rainstorms," Todd said. "This has been a really unusual winter."

There was a brush fire over the weekend in Moreno Valley.

The situation could get worse before it gets better if La Nina conditions continue to develop in the eastern Pacific Ocean.

"The bottom line is we're in a drought, and six out of 10 years, L.A. is dry," Patzert said. "When El Nino and La Nina are in doubt, go with drought."

hector.becerra@latimes.com

sara.lin@latimes.com

Times staff writer Tony Barboza contributed to this report.

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