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Scientists Predict Wet Winter in Drought-stricken US West


As the drought continues for another year in southern California, more and more people, including Jan Muntz, are replacing all or parts of their yards with unconventional garden plants.

The switch "is very painful," Muntz said. "Some of these plants have been there probably 80 or 90 years.”

Many of the plants in the Los Angeles area are not native and require lots of water. The Theodore Payne Foundation, through its nonprofit nursery, has been trying to promote and educate people about California native plants for decades. In the last several years, there has been a dramatic increase in the number of people who are interested, said the foundation’s Kitty Connolly.

“You use less water, so in a California native garden, depending on how you plant, you’ll save 50 to 80 percent of water over a conventional garden,” Connolly said.

A lack of water, however, may not be a problem this coming winter, said climatologist Bill Patzert.

“This looks very, very promising for a down payment on drought relief in the American West," he said. "We’re very hopeful for this El Nino.”

El Nino refers to a situation of warmer-than-average waters in the equatorial Pacific. Scientists expect a big one to hit toward the end of 2015 and into 2016. But, El Nino impacts go beyond the United States.

“Some areas that are normally dry, like the American West, Peru and Ecuador, get torrential rains," he said. "Southeast Asia, Indonesia and the Philippines and northern Australia — they get punishing droughts. Even in South Africa, they get droughts. So there isn’t one continent that doesn’t feel the footprint of a big El Nino.”

While El Nino lasts for about a year, another weather pattern in the works could last much longer. It’s call the Pacific Decadal Oscillation, or PDO, and it tends to show patterns of warming or cooling that would last for years or decades, research scientist Nate Mantua said.

"The warm pattern favors above-normal rainfall in southern California and throughout the southwest part of the U.S. and northern Mexico," he said.

But weather, Mantua said, is unpredictable, and in the last two big El Ninos, there were quick transitions to cold conditions and a shift in the PDO pattern. So one possibility: The southwestern U.S. may get only one year of rain.

At the Theodore Payne Foundation’s nursery, where people are learning to garden with California native plants, they say rain or drought, their yards will be prepared with plants that can probably handle whatever Mother Nature brings their way.

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