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Southern California wraps up 4th straight year of below-average rainfall

June 29, 2009 |  6:07 pm

Despite a gloomy June, Los Angeles is poised today to record its fourth year in a row with below normal rainfall.

From July 1 of last year to June 30—the period designated the “rain year”—only about 9 inches fell, compared with the average of just over 15 inches. Bill Patzert, a climatologist with the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in La Canada Flintridge, said the dry year dovetails ominously with a climate change report released last week by the White House.

Among the report’s findings was that warming in the Southwest was happening rapidly and would lead to scarcer water supplies, increasing incidents of wildfire and invasive insect infestations, and worsening drought.

Heatwaves will become more frequent and intense, and population growth will make these effects even more acute, the report said.

“The heat is on, man,” Patzert said. “We’re seeing rapid increases in the temperature in the West and decreases in our snow pack, so this is definitely a preview of coming attractions.” Southern California hasn’t had an above-average rain year since 2004-05, when L.A. experienced its second-wettest year on record, with rain totaling 37.25 inches.

The next year, some meteorologists forecast that El Niño conditions in the Pacific Ocean could lead to a wet winter for Southern California. Instead, L.A. experienced its driest year on record, with only 3.21 inches falling.

This June was one of the cooler ones. Almost every day was overcast. And the first days of the month were marked by something unusual: rain.

In fact, this June had twice as much as normal. But it still amounted to only about 0.15 inches, Patzert said. “That’s just enough to push the dirt around your car,” he said. “It’s definitely not a drought-buster.”

Bill Hoffer of the National Weather Service in Oxnard said the days leading up to the Fourth of July should be warmer than usual, hovering around 80 degrees in downtown L.A. “Barbecue weather,” he said.

There are glimmers of hope, at least for the relative short term. Meteorologists from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and from the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in La Jolla are forecasting El Niño conditions for this fall. Temperature increases in the surface temperature of the eastern and central equatorial Pacific could at long last mean above-normal rainfall for Southern California.

But Patzert cautioned that the last El Niños forecast were “disappointing” for Southern California. He said conditions in the Pacific Ocean would have to “grow rapidly” for El Niño to give the region a good dousing.

Patzert has argued that the region is locked into a more long-term dry pattern. “The last big El Niño we had was in '97-98. Since then we have a history of under-performing El Niños, with regard to our rainfall,” he said. “Even though I’m rooting for it, we shouldn’t get our hopes up.”

 In other words, don’t bet against barbecue weather.

— Hector Becerra