The water outlook for the state and the Northern San Joaquin Valley grew worse Thursday, as state officials released a survey showing the water content in the Sierra snowpack is 67 percent of normal.
That erased the optimism of last month's close-to-normal survey for the snowpack, which serves as a chief water supply for cities and farms in California.
State officials said it raised the possibility of water shortages and mandatory rationing this summer, but now the state is asking its 38 million residents only to conserve water.
"California needs to recognize we are in a water shortage and begin to act accordingly," said Mike Chrisman, the state's secretary for resources.
Officials stopped short of declaring a drought, but are worried that a dry season next year could bring severe shortages.
Most of California is suffering from a critical lack of precipitation in 2006-07, a dry fall and now a dry spring.
In Modesto, March and April were the driest since the Modesto Irrigation District began keeping records in 1888. There was no rain in April and 0.02 inches in March.
Although storms dumped on the Sierra in January and February, the dry mountain soil and paltry late-winter snowfall caused the snow reserves to shrink.
"We have lost half of the snowpack that we had in mid-March," said Elissa Lynn, senior meteorologist for the state Department of Water Resources. "We could be looking at conditions that are ripe for a serious drought."
Officials said runoff into streams and reservoirs is 55 percent to 65 percent of normal.
The water content is about 60 percent of normal in the central and southern Sierra, which will mean less water flowing into reservoirs that supply water to farms and cities in the San Joaquin Valley. The survey results were better in the northern Sierra, where the water content is 88 percent of normal.
No MID cutbacks for '08
Besides the dry weather, a court order to protect salmon migrations has placed restrictions on water transfers through the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta.
Officials with the MID and Turlock Irrigation District said the disappointing snowmelt will make it harder to recover from two straight below-normal years.
"We have plenty of water for this year; the concern is what happens if 2009 is another dry year," said Walt Ward, assistant general manager of water operations for the MID. "If it's an average year in 2009, it doesn't help you climb out of the hole. You need a series of wet years to pull it back."
The MID has no plans to cut water deliveries in 2008, but hasn't ruled it out for next year.
Because of the dry spring, the districts expect to carry more than 825,000 acre-feet in Don Pedro Reservoir in the fall after delivering water for farmers and city customers. That carryover is half of what they shoot for.
The districts share the storage in Don Pedro, and a wetter spring would have provided 13 percent more water to hold onto for next year, said Wes Monier, strategic issues and planning manager for the TID.
If the dry trend continues next year, Monier expects the district will continue with measures to conserve water.
TID cap on ag water
Last month, the Turlock district put a cap on agricultural water deliveries, the first time it has done so since the 1987-92 drought, and also shortened the spring-to-fall irrigation by two weeks.
Turlock farmer Ron Macedo said he made some changes to get by with the 42 inches of TID water. After irrigating his oat silage this spring, he wasn't sure he had enough water to plant corn as a second crop. So, he put a pumpkin field on drip irrigation and moved the TID allotment from that field to his corn crop.
More dry weather will make it tougher to maintain orchards and growers will resort to pumping water from the ground. "There is going to be more wells dug," Macedo said. "No doubt about it."
Water districts on the valley's West Side are hoping to hold onto their water allocations from the federal canal system. In February, the federal government cut the allocations for West Side growers to 45 percent and made no change in an April notice.
"It is not enough water to maintain a crop if you are planting your full acreage," said Anthea Hansen, assistant manager of the Del Puerto Water District, which includes 45,000 acres in western Stanislaus, San Joaquin and Merced counties.
Ground is being left fallow and some growers are paying top dollar to buy extra water from other federal water contractors, she said.
Not an official drought
California's water situation hasn't declined to the level of the last major drought to hit the state. The runoff in the Sacramento and San Joaquin river basins, averaged over the past two years, is 15 percent to 20 percent higher than in 1987-92, said Lynn with the Department of Water Resources.
Officials said the dry weather is getting close to an official drought, defined as prolonged below-normal rainfall, resulting in depleted water storage, dry soil and stressed public water systems.
On Thursday, Gov. Schwarz- enegger renewed his appeal for the state to invest in water infrastructure, including conservation, more storage and improved conveyance through and around the delta.
Chrisman said California residents can conserve water this summer by watering lawns in the evening, planting drought- resistant shrubs and using efficient washing machines and low-flush toilets.
"When most folks understand the importance of it, people usually respond to it," he said.
Bee staff writer Ken Carlson can be reached at email@example.com or 578-2321.