Jeff Jardine: California has seen this kind of drought before

jjardine@modbee.comJanuary 8, 2014 

What developed into a routine is becoming an early morning obsession:

I get out of bed, take a shower, start the coffee maker and fetch the newspaper. First thing, I check the weather forecast in the local news section. Then I switch on the TV to see what the Sacramento-area meteorologists, with their satellite imagery, Doppler radar, technogadgetry and makeup have to say, which generally mirrors what’s found on the paper’s weather page.

No rain in the forecast. Not today, not tomorrow, not next week. Maybe never again in our lifetime, if that dag-nabbed high-pressure system hovering over the state doesn’t break down like the Raiders’ defense. Plan on a high of 63 degrees, with plenty of sunshine. And don’t forget the 70-SPF sunscreen.

January is the new April. Deal with it.

From a global perspective, Greenland’s ice fields are receding and the oceans are rising, meaning that Waterford could become California’s newest beachfront community. And the so-called polar vortex – the new weather buzz term du jour – might make for subzero temperatures in the Midwest and leave New Jersey kneepads-deep in corn snow in time for the Super Bowl on Groundhog Day (Feb. 2). But unless they ship some of it west via rail or FedEx, it does us no good whatsoever out here. There’s virtually no snowpack in the Sierra. Dodge Ridge faces a threat of remaining shuttered for the entire ski season.

Indeed, our part of the world hasn’t seen rain since Dec. 7. Reservoir levels in the foothills and Sierra are dropping daily. The state is considering drafting a drought declaration to send to the governor – not that he can make it rain.

Likewise, the California Conference of Catholic Bishops has implored people of all faiths to pray for rain, precipitating the said missive in the form of a press release. At this point, anything is worth a try, including a prayer that God checks his email.

Indeed, we are dealing with another drought. Its not the first and won’t be the last. The droughts of 1975-77 and 1986-92 left area lake levels so low that boat owners were compelled to pull their crafts out of Folsom, New Melones and Don Pedro reservoirs.

The snowfall in 1986-87 was so bad that officials closed the Stanislaus National Forest to tourists that summer. By 1990, the Highway 49 bridge across the Stanislaus River at the old submerged town of Melones had resurfaced. And by 1992, things were so bad that one of the Sacramento TV stations blamed the messenger by canning its chief meteorologist.

Later that same year, the water level at New Melones Reservoir revealed the old concrete dam inundated since workers completed the new dam in the early 1970s.

Even promising winters here can turn dry in a hurry. The Sierra got tons of snow in December 1996. But a warm storm melted it, causing New Don Pedro Dam to spill for the first time around New Year’s 1997. Flooding consumed the Valley to Manteca, Patterson and beyond. Then, it stopped raining – period – for the rest of the season.

We’re back on familiar and dry turf, it seems. As of Wednesday, Folsom Lake east of Sacramento is at 18 percent of its capacity. New Melones is at 43 percent and Don Pedro is half full (or half empty, depending upon your personality).

To the northeast, Reno-Tahoe is fortunate it didn’t get to host this year’s 2014 Winter Olympics. Imagine, skateboarding replacing snowboarding.

And Valley residents – and the fish – should be glad Modesto Irrigation District officials ultimately listened to ratepayers and nixed a deal to sell water at $700 an acre-foot to San Francisco. Unless we get a “March Miracle” similar to those in 1995 (5.83 inches) and 1978 (5.5 inches), with suffocating snowfall to match in the high country, there won’t be any water to spare. Some cities are already discussing rationing, while increased groundwater pumping leaves some who rely on wells to worry about diminishing aquifers.

Yes, this dry spell could climate-change the morning routine: Quicker showers. Pots of coffee that start half full or half empty (depending upon your personality), followed by the habitual look at the newspaper, the TV and the sky.

And prayer for rain can’t hurt, either.

Bee columnist Jeff Jardine can be reached at jjardine@modbee.com or (209) 578-2383. Follow him on Twitter @JeffJardine57.

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