FRESNO — Snow-surveying crews across the Sierra are seeing bad news up close this week. California has about half a snowpack.
Skiing, snowshoeing or riding helicopters, the crews are making their way to high-elevation meadows for the most important snow measurement of the year.
April 1 is the unofficial end of the snowfall season this year, after a miserably dry January, February and March. City officials, industry leaders and farmers will get a good idea of how much water to expect when the snow melts.
Reports won't be finished for a few days, but California already has reason to be disappointed. Big storms of November and December built the snowpack to 140 percent of average on Jan. 1. Now, automated snow sensors show it is 54 percent.
The snowpack was 46 percent of average at this point last March meaning the state has had two bad years in a row. There's no state drought emergency because reservoirs still hold an average amount of water.
But the "d" word is filtering into conversations among weather experts.
"We're in a meteorological drought," said meteorologist Paul Iniguez of the National Weather Service in Hanford. "We had record-setting dry months for some places in California during January and February."
That includes mountains east of Modesto, which hold about 57 percent of normal moisture for this time of year.
Downtown Modesto has had 8.5 inches of rain this season, or 69 percent of the 12.2-inch average since 1889. That's nowhere near the all-time low of 4.3 inches in 1913, but far less than the all-time high of 26 inches in 1983.
"Everyone knows it kind of dried out," Walter Ward, a Modesto Irrigation District assistant general manager, told the MID board Tuesday.
The forecast calls for a chance of rain in Modesto and the valley today through Monday, but it does not look like a powerful storm. That has been a familiar forecast over the past three months.
There is no easy explanation for the big change in the weather pattern since December. Neither El Niño nor La Niña influenced the weather this year. For whatever reason, storms have been blocked over the past three months.
The result has been dramatic. The Yosemite Valley headquarters in Yosemite National Park averages nearly 13 inches of precipitation for January and February combined. This year, the two-month total is 1.41 inches.
Longtime hydrographer Henry French with Pacific Gas & Electric Co. said the snow looks like it usually does in May and sometimes June.
"Sure looks like a half- precipitation year," he said.
The crown jewel of PG&E's statewide hydroelectric network is the mammoth Helms project, buried 1,000 feet into the granite between Courtright and Wish-on reservoirs in Fresno County. The 1,200-megawatt plant could light much of the San Joaquin Valley.
After big snowfall years, hydro projects run all summer. Smaller snowpacks mean shorter runs of hydroelectric production.
"When we get closer to summer, we'll have a better idea of how long the season will last," PG&E spokesman Paul Moreno said.
Farmers all over the valley are nervously watching the snow and rain totals. The irrigation season probably will start early because rainfall has been so sparse, many farmers say.
On her 600-acre citrus farm in Tulare County, Cathie Walker expects to be using a lot of well water this summer.
"It's going to be a rough year," she said. "We were born into a farming family. We know this is the way it goes sometimes."
Modesto Bee staff writer Garth Stapley contributed to this report.