Notable & Quotable: John Steinbeck on Dry Years and Wet Years


‘But there were dry years too, and they put a terror on the valley.’

John Steinbeck was of a generation that lived close to the land. Grapes of Wrath, and The Red Pony reveal his farmer’s insight. Writing about California’s Salinas Valley, where he grew up, in the novel East of Eden (1952):

I have spoken of the rich years when the rainfall was plentiful. But there were dry years too, and they put a terror on the valley. The water came in a thirty-year cycle. There would be five or six wet and wonderful years when there might be nineteen to twenty-five inches of rain, and the land would shout with grass. Then would come six or seven pretty good years of twelve to sixteen inches of rain. And then the dry years would come, and sometimes there would be only seven or eight inches of rain.


The land dried up and the grasses headed out miserably a few inches high and great bare scabby places appeared in the valley. The live oaks got a crusty look and the sagebrush was gray. The land cracked and the springs dried up and the cattle listlessly nibbled dry twigs. Then the farmers and the ranchers would be filled with disgust for the Salinas Valley. The cows would grow thin and sometimes starve to death. People would have to haul water in barrels to their farms just for drinking. Some families would sell out for nearly nothing and move away.

And it never failed that during the dry years the people forgot about the rich years, and during the wet years they lost all memory of the dry years. It was always that way.


May is wettest month on record in Texas

Texas has never had a wetter month than this one.

According to state climatologist John Nielsen-Gammon, Texas has so far received an average of 7.54 inches of rain in May, which smashes the previous record of 6.66 inches, set in June 2004. Texas rain records go back 120 years.

The amount of water falling onto Texas this month is staggering, amounting to roughly 35 trillion gallons. That’s as much rain as the mighty Mississippi river discharges over the course of three months. And even if every Texan had 50 large swimming pools, the rain would have filled all of them.

According to Nielsen-Gammon, the 10 highest rainfall months in state history were all over six inches per month. So for a single month to come along and jump all the way to 7.54 inches, with a few days left in May, is remarkable.

And it comes just four years after 2011, the worst one-year drought experienced by the state.

“The monthly rainfall record was annihilated this May about as badly as 2011 annihilated the drought records,” said Nielsen-Gammon, a professor of atmospheric science at Texas A&M University.
About 10 to 15 inches of rain have fallen across Houston this month, which got much of that during the Memorial Day Weekend. Dallas has been the state’s high-water mark with about 20 inches in May. Parts of Central Texas have gotten 18 inches.

At the San Antonio International Airport, the National Weather Service has recorded 7.05 inches so far this month, about three inches above normal but far from the record of 14.07 inches set in 1935. Combined with April’s 7.54 inches, rainfall for the year is about 10 inches over the average.

The Edwards Aquifer, the main water supply for the San Antonio area, is also at its highest mark in more than three years, reaching 662.6 feet above sea level at the J-17 index well.

An active El Niño in the Pacific Ocean has driven the persistent rains across Texas by helping to steer the jet stream, a current of fast-moving air in the upper atmosphere, over the state. This has brought a steady flow of moisture and upper-level low pressure systems, which create the lift to form thunderstorms.

A wet May has pulled most of Texas out of the drought that began in late 2010. A year ago more than 55 percent of Texas remained in at least a “severe” drought, based upon data from the U.S. Drought Monitor. Now about 3 percent is, and falling.

Overall the state’s reservoirs are now 82 percent full, says the Texas Water Development Board. That’s up from less than 65 percent a few months ago, and it’s the highest level since 2010.

Summer, of course, is coming.

That means the northern hemisphere jet stream, which can swoop down as far south as Texas during cooler months, will pull back north. During the summer months, the jet stream will more typically move over southern Canada and the upper Midwestern United States.

El Niño’s influence on rainfall in Texas will wane. June could still be wet, but there’s no reason to believe the wet pattern will extend into July or August.

In fact, some long-range forecast models indicate higher pressures over much of Texas and the Gulf of Mexico during these warmer months, which would mean the state receives less rain than normal.

So rain may be a pain now, but by August it may be a fond memory.



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    • Weather has always come in cycles. Earlier generations – like Steinbeck’s – lived closer to the land and understood these better.

      Thanks for the comment.

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