In 1977, I was 12 years old. Northern California had been in a drought for the previous couple of years, and my brothers and I had become used to hauling out the bath water to irrigate our mother’s fruit trees. Over dinner, my parents often discussed their belief that all Californians needed to learn how to live with a lot less water, musing that homes, schools and businesses of the future would be void of lawns, replaced instead with landscapes of drought-resistant native plants.
The next year, 1978, Northern California was hit with a deluge of rain that caused flooding. The talk around the table instantly switched from concerns over having too little water to discussions on how best to manage the flood threat from local rivers and lakes during times of excess. This resulted in heated discussions within the community over flood control plans, which caused major divisions between farmers, city planners and environmentalists.
Since then, it seems like every decade, we’re faced with a cycle of drought followed by major storms that result in expensive flood damage. Think about the floods of 1986, 1995 and 1997. How about the flood of 2005? Many of these storms occurred during times of El Niño conditions, with 1997-’98 occurring during what has been called a “Super El Niño.” Reports are that 2015’s El Niño is shaping up to be similar to it.
“Conditions are setting up this year in a way that could potentially make this one of the biggest El Niños on record,” says Kevin Trenberth, distinguished senior scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research.
El Niño (warm) and La Niña (cool) conditions result when there’s a change in sea surface water temperature in the equatorial Pacific Ocean. These changes affect the circulation of the atmosphere, which, in turn, changes weather patterns. The most noted change often comes to areas south of the equator, but some memorable events have also occurred in the United States.
There’s still not enough evidence to conclusively correlate either El Niño or El Niña patterns with distinct weather effects in the United States. So, even if this year’s El Niño takes the title as the strongest ever, there is no guarantee that it will result in a noticeable change in rainfall here.
But even if the data isn’t conclusive, remembering our history of wet-dry cycles, it’s certainly worth considering the risks of excessive rain. Flooding can impact anyone, but vineyard owners near waterways have particular risks.
The 1997-’98 flood hit in early January when the grapevines were dormant. Even so, 2,000 acres of Napa and Sonoma vineyards were damaged by silt, erosion and damage from debris that tore at the plants and their root systems. At the time, local agricultural officials estimated vineyard damage would exceed $10 million. Two years earlier, in 1995, floods came in two distinct waves. The first major flooding, as in 1997-’98, occurred in January, but the second deluge came in March, which was particularly damaging because many of the vines had started bud break or had just been pruned. The hard rains and flooding at that time resulted in destroying much of the nascent crop and also helped spread disease, which easily entered into open pruning cuts on the vine. The estimated vineyard damage of 1995-’96 resulted in $20+ million, about $30 million in today’s dollars.
“People have every right to be concerned,” says Trenberth. “Even though California needs the water, this could be a case of too much of a good thing. At present, we just need to watch and wait. We should know more later this year where this thing is headed.”
So will 2015-’16 go down in history as a Super El Niño? Despite there being no conclusive data, there’s no denying that some extreme storms have occurred during strong El Niño years. So, better safe than sorry. Even if this year’s conditions don’t result in major flooding, it still makes good sense for all of us to examine our risks and address areas of concern. Store a little extra water and food. Check your flashlight batteries. Know your evacuation routes. Set up emergency procedures with your family and companies. And, if you’re a vineyard owner, waddle, secure and make sure you cover up those wounds after pruning.
We can all use the rain, but what’s the saying? An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of water? Excuse me, I mean a pound of cure.
Presently, Tim Carl lives, writes and teaches in Calistoga. He grew up in St. Helena and traces his California grape-growing roots back five generations. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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