We might as well face the facts: unless these storms bring Southern California some much-needed rain this week, most of the California desert isn't going to have a stunning spring wildflower display this year.
This time last year a reasonably good bloom was just starting out in the hills surrounding the Coachella Valley, with desert lupines in bud and Canterbury bells (Phacelia) already showing their characteristic pale purple. The red tubular flowers of the shrub Chuparosa (Justicia californica) that favorite food plant of the desert's hummingbirds, offered a dark complement to the first few blooms of brittlebush (Encelia farinosa), which covered the hillsides in yellow daisies just three or four weeks later.
This week the hills around Palm Springs are a lot more drab. Chuparosa is just about the only source of color in the lower elevations of Mount San Jacinto, aside from the purple of Costa's hummingbirds and the blue bellies of side-blotched lizards. Encelia is preparing to bloom only where it gets a little bit more water: in canyons and irrigated gardens, and along the sides of streets where runoff is concentrated on the verge. In moister parts of the desert, like the comparatively well-watered Big Morongo Canyon, an occasional bladderpod (Isomeris arborea) is already displaying yellow blossoms among last year's seed pods.
And that's pretty much it for most of the desert. There are a few spots where tightly focused storms have brought sufficient moisture to spur potential bloom over a few square miles. We reported yesterday that the Cottonwood area in Joshua Tree National Park, where intense fall storms saturated the ground (and washed out roads and other artifacts of modern human use), has quite a few things in bloom, including annuals like the delicate and haunting ghost flower (Mohavea confertiflora,) among others. I've heard reports of some color in canyons around Borrego Springs and in the vicinity of the Palen Mountains, likely the result of similar microburst storms over the last few months.
And the desert just east of the 395 north of Ridgecrest may well be very colorful in the months to come. A January 13 storm dumped a significant amount of rain in the Owens Valley, bringing seasonal rainfall totals for towns like Independence and Bishop well past 100% of the average to date for the season. As the Owens Valley is farther north and at around 4,000 feet, spring comes later there than to other parts of the desert: check wildflower hotlines for updates starting in March.
For the rest of the desert, rainfall so far doesn't even come close to the average. Just 50 miles east of the Owens Valley, Death Valley has to date received just 8% of its already meager average rainfall for the wet season. Palmdale in the Antelope Valley has seen less than a third of its average rainfall, and Palm Springs slightly over one quarter its average. Outside the Owens Valley, the wettest city in the California desert this season seems to be Barstow, and even Barstow is 20% shy of meeting its average precipitation to date.
In other words: it's been a dry winter in the desert. Meteorologists point a finger at La Niña, the "cold" phase of the gigantic and complex atmospheric and oceanic cycle known as the El Niño/Southern Oscillation, or ENSO. La Niña tends to dry out the southern part of North America. The current La Niña, which has lasted more or less since 2010, has crippled agriculture and devastated wildlife in Texas and New Mexico. Its effects in California have been less severe. The latest thinking from meteorologists in the federal sector is that La Niña conditions will subside between March and May of this year.
Though this La Niña's effects may be greater elsewhere, the winter of 2011-2012 may offer a glimpse of the future for California's deserts. Though forecasting how climate change will affect the deserts is fraught with risk, most models indicate a likely increase in drought, coupled with an increase in severity of rainstorms when they do happen. Intense rain in one place - as in this year's Owens Valley - and intense drought fifty miles east may turn out to be the new reality for the deserts.
The plants that are blooming in the Low Desert right now, chuparosa and brittlebush and bladderpod, are shrubs that can weather a few dry seasons. Still, the brittlebushes in the hills above Palm Springs right now look like they don't have many more dry seasons left in them. They are dessicated and losing leaves. As I write this on Monday night, a storm that promised a chance of local showers has dissipated without shedding a drop in the Coachella Valley. Another, wetter storm is headed this way later in the week. If it fizzles out as well, as have all the storms here since the monsoons of September, the low desert's vegetation will have to make it through another searingly hot summer somehow.
Chris Clarke is an environmental writer of two decades standing. Author of Walking With Zeke, he writes from Palm Springs regularly at his acclaimed blog Coyote Crossing and comments on desert issues on KCET weekly. Read his recent posts here.