March miracle? Nice try.
This week's storms failed to add much to water supplies in the Northern San Joaquin Valley, which has started to feel the pain of yet another drought.
Water rationing is not in the immediate future for city residents, but they will have to follow the usual conservation rules as they do their earlier-than-usual watering.
The Turlock Irrigation District, the region's largest, has capped 2013 deliveries at a level that could leave some farmers short. The Modesto Irrigation District could soon follow with somewhat softer limits.
On the West Side, where drought is amplified by strict fish protections, several irrigation districts expect just 25 percent of their contracted supply from the federal government. If they do not have supplements, such as groundwater or purchases from flusher districts, some fields could go fallow.
"It's a very serious situation for us, and our growers are very concerned," said Bill Harrison, general manager of the Del Puerto Water District.
Rainfall in Modesto totaled 8.4 inches as of Friday, according to the MID. That's well short of the average season total of 12.2 inches, with less than a month to go in the rainy season. More important to the valley water supply, the snowpack in the central Sierra Nevada was 67 percent of average as of Thursday.
"These storms would have helped if they turned into good rain-makers and snow-makers, but we're not seeing that," Harrison said.
His district supplies about 45,000 acres straddling Interstate 5 from Vernalis to Santa Nella. It gets its water from the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta via the federal Central Valley Project.
Harrison said his district could try to buy water from West Side districts that, because of stronger rights, expect 100 percent of their contracted amount this year. Those districts have been working to make water available for sale through conservation projects.
It won't come cheap. Harrison said Del Puerto pays $57 per acre-foot for its base supply, but could pay about $275 on the open market.
A reduced supply could prompt farmers to direct water to trees and vines and to forgo less valuable annual crops. About 60 percent of Del Puerto is in these "permanent" crops, such as almonds, pistachios, walnuts, apricots, cherries and citrus, Harrison said. Tomatoes, melons and other annual crops might skip 2013 in some places.
MID, TID in better shape
The MID and the TID are in better shape because they have more control of their water supply, the Tuolumne River. The same goes for the Oakdale and South San Joaquin districts on the Stanislaus River.
But that doesn't mean it will be easy dealing with the dry conditions, which come on top of below-average conditions last year.
The TID board has capped water deliveries at 2½ acre-feet per acre. A farmer could get twice that in years of adequate rain and snow.
The cap might not be too onerous on a farmer who has access to wells or who uses drip or micro-sprinkler irrigation in orchards or vineyards. But the cap could hurt dairy farmers who hope to squeeze in a fall feed crop to reduce the need for expensive feed purchases.
The MID board on April 9 will consider a basic allotment of 3 acre-feet per acre. Another half acre-foot would be available at a higher price, and water beyond that would need permission from the district.
Last year, 76 percent of MID farmers used 3 acre-feet per acre or less, spokeswoman Melissa Williams said.
The city of Modesto gets much of its water from the MID, supplementing groundwater. The city's amount would be reduced by the same percentage as for farmers.
Dave Savidge, water system manager for Modesto, said the city is monitoring the conditions to see if water-use rules have to be tightened.
Reservoirs holding up fairly well
One bright spot: Reservoirs are holding up fairly well, thanks in part to fall storms.
Don Pedro on the Tuolumne stood at 97 percent of average for the date as of Wednesday, according to the state water agency. New Melones Reservoir on the Stanislaus was at 100 percent.
That's little help to cattle ranchers who do not have irrigation systems, which includes most of the valley's eastern and western flanks.
The dry weeks since early January have not done much damage, said Theresa Becchetti, a livestock and natural resource adviser for the University of California Cooperative Extension, because the soil still is moist from the fall storms.
Late-winter rain, followed by warming spring days, could bring a new burst of growth in the grasses. That happened last year on the eastern side of the valley, making up for a long dry spell that had kept the hillsides brown into January.
Bee staff writer John Holland can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (209) 578-2385.
FOLLOW THE RULES
Whether you water in March or water in August, you have to follow rules aimed at conserving the supply. Below are the basics for Modesto; other cities in the area have similar rules.
Homes with even-numbered addresses can do outdoor watering only on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays.
Odd-numbered homes can water on Wednesdays, Fridays and Sundays.
No one can water on Mondays.
Watering cannot be done from noon to 7 p.m.
Vehicles can be washed only with nozzles that can be shut off.