This year's record El Niño may drench drought-stricken California, but at high cost

El Niño brought heavy flooding to Petaluma and elsewhere in Southern California in 1998
(Image credit: John G. Mabanglo/AFP/Getty Images)

California needs rain, badly, and the National Weather Service's Climate Prediction Center said Thursday that the Golden State will likely get lots of it this winter — maybe too much, and in the wrong places. "This definitely has the potential of being the Godzilla El Niño," said climatologist William Patzert, at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in La Cañada Flintridge.

The climatologists said that based on the high ocean temperatures off the coast of Peru and weakening trade winds in the central and western Pacific Ocean, this El Niño could be the biggest on record, rivaling or surpassing the one that devastated Mexico and Southern California in 1997-98.

The first problem with all that rain is that it won't be enough — California would need 2 1/2 to 3 times its normal rainfall to erase the four-year drought. The second is that there will be too much, especially in Southern California, overwhelming flood-control infrastructure in Los Angeles and elsewhere. The rain would refill some reservoirs, but most of California's water comes from the northern and central parts of the state, especially snow in the Sierra Nevadas, and El Niño doesn't bring much snow.

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The only thing worse than a huge El Niño, however, might be a tiny one. If there's no further weakening of the trade winds, or some other variable goes wrong, the deluge may not come. "Bob Dylan says it all: The answer is blowin' in the wind," Patzert said. If the trade winds don't collapse, "this will turn out to be a modest El Niño, with a huge sigh of disappointment here in the West."

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Peter Weber

Peter Weber is a senior editor at, and has handled the editorial night shift since the website launched in 2008. A graduate of Northwestern University, Peter has worked at Facts on File and The New York Times Magazine. He speaks Spanish and Italian and plays bass and rhythm cello in an Austin rock band. Follow him on Twitter.