Travel: California's desert wildflowers go from bloom to bust

Travel: California's desert wildflowers go from bloom to bust

Less than an inch of rain has hit the desert floor in Borrego Springs since September. In contrast, by the end of February last year, the total was 7 inches. Those 6 inches could translate into perhaps 500,000 fewer visitors to the desert this spring.

Super blooms don’t happen often, and it had been a couple of decades since the last one when the rains of early 2017 filled reservoirs and soaked the Anza-Borrego Desert State Park valley floor. Spectacular wildflowers covered vast areas of the park, and the public took notice.

“In many respects, last year was uncharted territory for us,” said Jim Dice, a wildflower expert. “It was the first super bloom in the social media age.”

Dice, a botanist and manager of a research center in Borrego Springs, became the go-to flower expert for the media.

“I can’t remember all the people I talked to from all over the world,” he said. “I had somebody call me from Fiji wanting to interview me.”

From late February through March, officials estimated that as many as 750,000 people came to Borrego to have a look.

The result: some called it “Flowergeddon.” Borrego Springs wasn’t prepared for the crush of beauty-seeking humanity. There weren’t nearly enough restrooms in town to handle the crowds, leading to a lot of public urination. Restaurants ran out of food, and traffic was insane. The first big weekend saw cars lined up for a dozen miles leading into the desert.

This year, officials have held several “port-a-potty” meetings to make sure the issue doesn’t resurface. But it’s highly unlikely portable restrooms will be needed.

Dice said usually it’s the rains of December, January and February that provide the moisture needed for a big bloom. But this year, park headquarters has recorded just 0.94 of an inch of rain.

“That’s far below even normal,” he said. A normal year brings about 5.5 inches of rain to Anza-Borrego, and even more than that is needed for a great wildflower experience.

“We got about 12 drops of rain yesterday,” Borrego Springs resident and former park Superintendent Mark Jorgensen said one day last week.

“These storms aren’t making it over the hill this year. There’s always going to be some plants blooming, but it’s not going to be a drive-by flower bloom situation. The town certainly needs it, but people could probably use a break.”

Last year’s super bloom was a boon to the business community. Visitors at times spent hours in lines to get a pizza, a burrito or just a bottle of water.

Linda Haddock, executive director of the Borrego Springs Chamber of Commerce, still hopes for a change in weather that might bring a late bloom, but she knows that’s unlikely. “The majority of businesses would love to see another big bloom now that we’ve gotten through Flowergeddon and learned our lessons,” she said. “We have port-a-potties lined up and ready to go if needed. We would love it, and we would be so much better prepared for the consumers.”

Dice said there will be some flowers just like every year and the perennials will bloom as always. But it won’t be anything like 2017.

There is an ever-so-slight chance that heavy rains will come, which is what happened in 1991, when a drought was ended by what became known as the March Miracle.

“We were facing a similar situation, and then March came and it rained for three weeks to a month and suddenly we were back in the wildflower business,” Dice said. A super bloom happened in April that year, a month later than normal.

But National Weather Service forecaster Philip Gonsalves said that probably won’t happen.

“Based on what the climate prediction center is forecasting, I wouldn’t hold out a whole lot of hope for a Miracle March,” he said. “If something like that happened, it would be unexpected.”