Rain a welcome sight in Sonoma County

On Sunday, as that furry forecaster Punxsutawney Phil predicted six more weeks of winter, it finally began to feel like the season normally does in Sonoma County.

A cool, steady rain fell on the region starting around 6 a.m., and by 4 p.m., 0.63 inches had accumulated at the Santa Rosa Airport, according to National Weather Service forecaster Steve Anderson. Snow was reported in the town of Angwin, on Highway 29 in Napa County near Robert Louis Stevenson State Park, and on Highway 175, which was closed for a portion of Sunday morning because of the weather, the CHP said. Some mountainous areas near Guerneville and Cazadero saw as much as an inch of rain, Anderson said.

Sunday's rainfall was not much by normal winter standards, but in the driest weather year on record in the county, many found it cause for excitement -#8212; and a hopeful sign that weather patterns which have long shunted rain farther north might be finally shifting.

A high-pressure system has for months deflected the winter rain that would normally fall on the North Coast and recharge streams, lakes and groundwater. The lack of precipitation has worsened already dry conditions resulting from low rainfall in the previous year. Just one-tenth of an inch fell at the Santa Rosa Airport this January compared with an average January rainfall of 5.93, said Randy Adkins, a meteorologist with AccuWeather.

"That's a whopping 2 percent of normal," he said.

The drought has parched the landscape into a stubbly dun when it would normally be lush and green, forcing ranchers to buy hay and truck in water for their animals. With the county's reservoirs at historic lows, water officials and lawmakers are asking for voluntary and sometimes mandatory water conservation.

Today, a Sonoma County Water Agency panel is set to vote on a request that all its contractors, including the cities and districts that provide water to 600,000 people, voluntarily cut water use by 20 percent. Cloverdale, Healdsburg and Willits have already imposed mandatory reductions in water use.

Today's rain, about six times that which fell last month, did not significantly ease the region's water worries but reflected at least a temporary break in the dry weather pattern.

"The high-pressure system that has been in control for the last several months has broken somewhat," said Anderson, adding that it was expected to move back into place after Sunday's rain.

However, it will likely be weaker than it was before, allowing for the possibility of more significant rainfall next weekend, he said.

AccuWeather's Adkins was also hesitant to predict long-range rainfall but said, "right now, it does appear the pattern is not going to be exactly the same as before."

"Things right now in the five- to 15-day time frame are more promising than they've been at any other point this winter," he added.

Both the National Weather Service and AccuWeather predicted a small chance of light rainfall during the week and a potential for heavier rainfall next weekend.

Temperatures are expected to remain cool throughout the week, with daytime highs in the upper 50s and lows in the low- to mid-30s.

While Sunday's rain was not nearly enough to float the area out of the rain deficit, many were still glad to see it.

"It's a beautiful thing," said Santa Rosa Phil Alvidrez on Sunday morning. He was standing in the cool, 44-degree air under the awning at Peet's Coffee on Fourth Street and watching the rain fall with a friend, Cody Borm. "I think the rain is great. In Northern California, we definitely need it for the crops."

A few blocks away, people had ducked into Holy Roast Cafe on Mendocino Avenue to warm up.

Mark Hollander served them coffee in a blue-and-black Hawaiian shirt out of keeping with the weather. He said people seemed to need rainy days in Northern California as a way to recharge, as an excuse to lay low and watch a movie or read a book.

"We've had such a string of sunny days," he said, "people are freaking out."

You can reach Staff Writer Jamie Hansen at 521-5205 or jamie.hansen@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter at @JamieHansen.