- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 12, 2003

LONG BEACH, Calif., Feb. 11 (UPI) — There is still time for El Nino to live up to its wet and wild reputation this winter and put a dent in the West's long-running drought now that a sturdy high-pressure system in the region has broken down, the head of the National Weather Service said Tuesday.

As a light but steady rain soaked freeways and the dry-brown hills of the Los Angeles area, NWS Director Jack Kelly told the American Meteorological Society annual meeting that the relatively modest El Nino occurring in the tropical Pacific was beginning to reassert its presence in the region after being conspicuously absent for most of the new year.

"In January, a high-pressure ridge built up over the West Coast and diverted the jet stream … to the north and it pushed the cold air into the Great Lakes," Kelly explained. "That has broken down now."

The situation produced some glorious beach days in Southern California, but also gave the uneasy impression that the El Nino of 2002 would not be the stormy rainmaker that drenched the region during the 1997-1998 winter season.

With the departure of the high pressure, Southern California and the states of the Southwest should be in for a stretch of cool, wet weather that will help fill reservoirs, boost snow packs and soak the mountain forests that can become parched kindling for wildfires during the dry summer months.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, of which the NWS is a part, is calling the current drought that stretches from the Pacific to the Great Plains one of the worst in more than 100 years.

Earlier this week, the governors of Nebraska, Montana and the two Dakotas wrote to President Bush and congressional leaders urging them to support drought relief legislation worth $3.1 billion.

"A drought disaster of historic proportions has had an adverse impact on our farmers and ranchers, creating a dire situation that has bled over into agriculture-related industries and our already-struggling economies as a whole," wrote the governors.

When it was discovered last year that an El Nino was heating up the waters of the South Pacific, the news was greeted with relief from westerners worried about withered lawns, parched pastures and catastrophic wildfires.

But when winter arrived, it was as though Barry Bonds was lifted for a singles hitter off the bench. Visions of drenching storms and mudslides turned into sunny skies in San Diego and Colorado's snow pack running well below normal for the sixth consecutive winter.

"In 70 percent of the last 11 El Nino events, the region received above-normal rainfall from February through April," said NOAA Administrator Conrad Lautenbacher. "So far, this season has been an anomaly."

Although Lautenbacher said it was "too early to count it out as a significant rainmaker," Kelly was more cautious.

"It's starting to weaken now and we think it will ebb away in the April time frame," Kelly said.

"To use a baseball analogy, these are big home run hitters, but they don't hit the same number of home runs every year," he ventured. "Everyone thinks all El Ninos are equal and they're not."

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