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Watching and waiting for the rain

It came right on time. Like clockwork. Not only that, but the rain waited until we were ready. Or at least until it wasn’t too much of a damper.

It didn’t come on New Year’s Day. The sky was left picture-perfect clear for the Rose Parade, just as it should be and everyone expects. And it waited another two days, giving us blue skies for the last weekend of the holidays.

The rain came on that Monday, the first Monday in January, right when the holidays were over and most of us were back to business as usual. It was here. Indeed, rain was going to be business as usual.

El Niño was here, just as we had been told it would be. All the reports said we would be getting a remarkable amount of rain with the unique weather system this winter. It would bring some relief, if not complete relief, to the state’s troubling four-year drought. It would also bring problems, like flooding. And it would most likely come in January not December when, as it was explained, the rain we got was “normal” rain, not El Niño rain.

Well, it was January, and El Niño was here. The first workweek of the month included several days of rain—unusual for this area, at least in recent years. There were also all the news stories, about flooded roads and freeways, about feet of snow in the local mountains, about the efforts to get homeless people out of the rain.

There were articles about how to prepare for a lot of rain. One article mentioned the two Pomona College students who were killed when a big tree fell on them on College Avenue during the last big El Niño in 1998. Steve Lopez had a column on the front page of the Los Angeles Times the day after the first day of rain about a homeless man who had a bed set up—complete with box springs and a comforter and a dining area with a small Christmas tree under a freeway—only to see it all float away when a downpour came. After refusing an offer of lunch, the man was proudly serving up burritos to the columnist when the water came.

El Niño was here, with all its promise and danger, with all its drama, just liked it was predicted. And then it wasn’t.

When it looked like it would rain the next Saturday during the dedication celebration for the new Claremont Lincoln University Community Performance Stage and the renovated Shelton Park in the Village, I thought we caught a lucky break when it didn’t. I thought it was just fortunate that there was a break in the rain that weekend.

Except it wasn’t a break. It was, it turned out, the way it was. That was it for all the rain. Other than a day of rain to close out the month and a brief shower and some sprinkling now and then, the storms stopped after that first week of January. And the storms during that week really weren’t, in general, that dramatic and extraordinary.

So much for El Niño. Or was it? Is it?

Did we get lucky and escape the ravages of a monster El Niño? Were we safe from giant sinkholes and from random trees falling on us? Look, we didn’t have to deal with extreme weather, like the folks on the East Coast who had two feet of snow in one weekend. New York City got just .2 inches less than the largest amount of snow that it ever got in a storm, which was almost a century ago. Not to mention the gorgeous, clear days complete with snow-capped mountains as a backdrop that we’ve been having.

But did this also mean that we are also in for another dry year, a fifth year of drought? Did it mean another year of cutting back on water, another year of brown lawns and dying trees and wondering if fountains and swimming pools are cool? Not necessarily. At least, that’s what we’re being told.

Apparently, we haven’t escaped the ravages of El Niño, and we still may have to live with drought conditions.

For one thing, we are told that the biggest part of El Niño is yet to come. Just as it was explained that the rain in December was normal and that El Niño most likely wouldn’t hit until January, the explanation now is that it won’t really hit until February and could even last into April or May.

When it was discovered last year that a big El Niño was on tap for this winter, we were cautioned that it wouldn’t end the drought. We were told that ending the drought would take an unprecedented or maybe impossible amount of rain. It was almost enough to make us think that this big El Niño is no big deal.

It was also explained at the time that the El Niño rains would hit us here in southern California and probably wouldn’t reach northern California and that, even if they did, because of the warming, there wouldn’t be much snow. Snow, it was explained, is what’s critical in ending the drought since it melts off slowly and allows the water to be more easily captured and not just drained into the ocean.

In an average year, melting snowpack provides roughly a third of the water used by California cities and farms. But something different has been happening. At least it was happening last month. The El Niño rains, with all their drama, have been hitting up north. In Pacifica, south of San Francisco, cliffs have been eroded by pounding surf, and people have been evacuated from apartments. Or have those rains been the usual storms from Alaska—just more than usual? In any case, most of the storms have been “wrung out” by the time they reach us. What’s more, there has been more than the usual amount of snow.

Even with the storms here only during the first week of January, there has been more snow on Mt. Baldy than we’ve seen in more than a year. There have been articles about the unusual snow here and people flocking to it.

Whether all the rain up north and all the snow is from El Niño or not, the question remains:?Is it enough? Yes, there has been a higher-than-usual amount of snow so far—the deepest in five years—but we keep being told that April 1 is the critical date. It all depends on how much snow there is on the state’s mountains, mainly up north, on that day. In some places, there is 115 percent of the normal amount of snow, but it is said that the average amount needs to be 150 percent. And as a recent Los Angeles Times article pointed out, “Water levels in the state’s reservoirs have risen since December 1, but storage is still far below historical averages.”

That goes right along nicely with the other now-all-too-familiar refrains in the same article: “a modest yet encouraging milestone in a period of extended drought” and “it is too early to determine whether winter rains will be enough to make any major dent in California’s drought.”

Is this all good news or bad news? Maybe we should take whatever rain we get and make it better news. That is, until it gets to be worse news.

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