Even the wettest spot in Hawai’i — Mount Wai’ale’ale — wasn’t so wet last year as the state experienced below-normal rainfall in all but a few spots.
Rain gauges at the Kaua’i mountaintop measured 308 inches in 2009, 73 percent of normal levels, and a scant 3 inches in December, only 7 percent of normal. It was Mount Wai’ale’ale’s third-driest December on record, according to National Weather Service data.
In Honolulu, only the O’ahu Forest National Wildlife Refuge experienced above-normal rainfall in 2009 — 214 inches. Totals for most sites in central and west O’ahu were less than 50 percent of their annual averages.
The December rainfall numbers were even worse, with most O’ahu gauges measuring a third or less of normal rainfall averages, a trend that has continued into the new year.
The U.S. Drought Monitor reports that 99 percent of the state is experiencing "abnormally dry" or worse conditions, compared with 37 percent at the same time last year. More than a third of the state is suffering "severe to exceptional" drought.
On Maui and the Big Island, the U.S. Department of Agriculture last month designated the two counties as natural disaster areas so farmers could seek relief for crop losses.
"It was very dry in the eastern half of the state. The west half was in pretty good shape, particularly early in the wet season, but nothing really made it over to the east half, with much of Maui County and the Big Island experiencing some form of drought throughout the whole year," said Kevin Kodama, senior hydrologist for the National Weather Service in Honolulu.
"The Big Island, especially, has had considerable extreme drought in the leeward areas."
With the El Niño ocean-atmosphere system prevailing into 2010, the Drought Monitor is predicting dry conditions in Hawai’i through May.
That means drought could develop across the rest of the state, affecting farmers and raising the risk of wildfires. And it’s not good news for coffee growers in West Hawai’i, who are hoping for more rain in the coming weeks to ensure a good harvest in the last half of the year.
"We’ve been very dry for two months. If we don’t get at least a couple of good winter storms, we’ll have a short harvest," said Bruce Corker, president of the Kona Coffee Farmers Association.
Corker’s Rancho Aloha grows coffee, avocadoes and lulu fruit on his nearly 4-acre farm in Hōlualoa.
"We haven’t had much rain at all. Everything is dry," he said.
Farther north, Kahua Ranch Ltd. has begun supplementing feed for its 3,000 cattle. The ranch has 10,000 acres in Kohala and 15,000 acres on the southern tip of the Big Island in Ka’ū.
Ranch chairman Monte Richards said light rains in the last couple of months provided surface moisture and temporarily greened up some grazing areas, but the water didn’t penetrate deep into the soil.
The Kohala ranch averages a little more than 6 inches of rain in each of the months of December and January, but last month received only half that amount, and halfway through January, only three-quarters of an inch has fallen, Richards said.
"It is tough. We know we’re one day closer to rain but we’re not sure when it’s coming," he said.
"This and last month is when we get the bulk of our annual rainfall. It can turn around and get wetter later on. We’re not out of the gunsights of getting some good storms, but it’s fading fast."
Dry conditions also contributed to the spread of an 1,800-acre forest fire that has been burning above Kealakekua for several weeks.
Capt. Terry Seelig, of the Honolulu Fire Department, said the dry conditions in the winter months are a reminder that brushfires can be a threat at any time of the year.
"It’s important to understand the relationship between dry weather and the possibility of a fire starting and spreading quickly," he said.
"People need to be vigilant" and not wait for the warmer summer season to report hazardous conditions, to prepare an evacuation plan and to clear rubbish, brush and other potential fuel sources from around houses, Seelig said.
Much of the state was already in the grip of a drought by the end of the dry season in September. Kodama said the wet season that begins in October provided "a small window of opportunity" to boost the year’s rainfall totals.
November, the most active month for flash flooding, produced four periods of rain that damaged homes and property on Kaua’i and O’ahu and caused two deaths in Hāna, Maui.
One of the most intense rainy periods in the last decade occurred Nov. 14 when a storm dumped water over Hanalei and other parts of northern Kaua’i at a rate of 4 inches per hour, according to the weather service. A series of storms drenched portions of the state in December, but not where it was needed most.
"The windward side of Maui and the Big Island got quite a bit of rain, but the leeward sides never saw any of that. So they got some drought relief but it was very minimal and it dried back up," Kodama said.
Most of the Big Island gauges in December registered less than 50 percent of the average amount of rain for the month.
Maui rainfall also was below normal for December. Pu’u Kukui, considered the second-wettest spot in the state, received only 4 inches of rain, 11 percent of what it normally sees, the weather service said.
In contrast to the very wet November, all gauges on Kaua’i recorded below-normal rainfall during December, with most at less than 20 percent of the monthly average.
And all of the gauges on O’ahu recorded below-normal totals in December, with most at less than 50 percent of normal, according to the rainfall data.