By Dan Whitcomb
LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Californians who hoped that El Nino-driven storms would unleash a heavy dousing to the drought-parched state in February instead saw less rain than normal for the month, but forecasters said March could still deliver.
Predictions of an El Nino winter, bringing a series of heavy storms to the West Coast, had been greeted optimistically in California, which has grappled with a crippling, four-year drought that has killed millions of trees and cost the state's agricultural economy an estimated $1.84 billion.
El Nino is a recurring climate pattern that warms parts of the Pacific and often brings severe weather to California and other parts of the West Coast.
The winter got off to a cold, wet start in December and January as storms dropped several feet of much-needed snow in the Sierra Mountains, which serve as the source of much of the state's water supply.
But in February, warmer than expected sea temperatures appear to have diverted several squalls further north, which meant the month saw much less rainfall than even a typical year, National Weather Service meteorologist Robbie Munroe said.
Downtown Los Angeles, which normally gets 3.8 inches of rain in February instead collected only .79 inches, Munroe said. National Weather Service statistics showed the Bay Area receiving similarly low rainfall totals.
"Typically, from past six strong El Ninos, we have generally seen above normal rainfall. But since 0ctober 1 we've only seen five inches of rain so far (across Southern California)," he said. "We were certainly expecting a lot more."But if February was a disappointment, forecasters said a string of storms were on track to hit the state in early-to-mid March, bringing significant rainfall that could make an impact on the drought, he said.
Munroe said Climate Prediction Center models have called for rainfall totals 60 to 70 percent above normal for the first half of March, which depending on how and where the precipitation falls could provide a measure of relief to the state.
The last two El Ninos, in the winters of 1982-83 and 1997-98, each hit Los Angeles with more than 30 inches (76 cm) of rain, far above the roughly 15 inches (38 cm) the second most populous U.S. city receives annually on average.
The drought prompted California Governor Jerry Brown last year to order the first statewide mandatory water restrictions, directing cities and communities to reduce their water usage by at least 25 percent.
(Reporting by Dan Whitcomb; Editing by Cynthia Osterman)