The driest start to a year on record will prompt an early water season next week around Modesto, and Turlock Irrigation District leaders voted Tuesday to restrict deliveries this year.
Some farmers on the west side of the San Joaquin Valley, who get water from a different source, can expect only 25 percent of requested flow under a federal contract.
Last winter also was unusually dry, making for back-to-back years with a below-average Sierra Nevada snowpack, which is heavily relied on as frozen storage by the Modesto and Turlock irrigation districts.
Central Sierra snowpack is about 68 percent of normal for this time of year, the California Department of Water Resources reported Tuesday — a tad worse than the statewide mountain average of 69 percent.
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With no storms on the horizon, January and February have produced only 2.2 inches of Sierra precipitation — the worst mark since that type of record keeping began in 1920 and 13 percent of the two-month average. The next driest was 4.0 inches in 1991.
"We all hope for a wet March," Walter Ward, the MID's assistant general manager for water operations, told board members Tuesday. After all, December storms dropped far more than usual before Mother Nature turned off the spigot.
Water from Don Pedro Reservoir will begin filling MID and TID canals Sunday, with farm deliveries expected to start Wednesday or Thursday — about a week earlier than the historical start of irrigation season.
Also Tuesday, the TID board voted 5-0 to limit deliveries to 2½ acre-feet per acre. An acre-foot covers an acre, or about a football field, a foot deep.
In years with adequate rain and snow, Turlock-area farmers typically can get twice that much.
MID leaders are scheduled to vote April 9 on a 3-foot base allotment, down from the usual 3 feet, 6 inches. Also that day, they'll consider raising irrigation rates 10 percent.
The districts' restrictions are not as severe as what farmers face in parts of the western and southern San Joaquin Valley. They could, however, pose problems for customers hoping to grow late-season feed crops.
Ward said high temperatures and sunlight can trigger orchards to bloom more suddenly than usual — a critical time to water almond trees.
The two districts serve a combined 8,000 farmers and 208,000 acres.