Irrigation season was delayed in 2017 as storm after storm kept farm and garden soil moist.
Fast-forward to 2018, which has started out very dry and brought calls to fill the canals early.
So are we back to serious drought in the Northern San Joaquin Valley, which endured one from 2012 to 2016? Not yet in most places, thanks to reservoirs and groundwater bolstered by last year’s record rain and snow.
Farm and city water suppliers are being cautious nonetheless, in case this is the start of another multi-year drought.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to The Modesto Bee
The Modesto Irrigation District board last week set the 2018 allotment at 42 vertical inches over a season that will start Feb. 25 and run into fall. Farmers got up to 48 inches last year but just 16 in 2015, the worst of the drought.
“We’ve taken a conservative approach to water forecasting, probably more so than we did prior to the last drought,” John Davids, assistant general manager for water operations, told the board.
Some of MID’s water from the Tuolumne River goes to the city of Modesto, which also has wells. The city could limit outdoor watering to two days a week in summer if conditions do not improve, said William Wong, acting director of utilities.
“Our groundwater levels appear to be recovering after a wet 2017," he said, "but the city will continue to monitor these levels closely if the city pumps more groundwater to meet upcoming water demands."
The city of Turlock, which relies entirely on groundwater, remains on drought restrictions because six of the 23 wells do not meet health standards. Residents likely will be limited to watering two days a week all year, said Michael Cooke, director of municipal services.
The Turlock Irrigation District, which also draws from the Tuolumne, has not yet set its allotment for 2018. It and MID have above-average storage in Don Pedro Reservoir, but it could drop sooner than planned if farmers use a lot of water early.
“It’s not the driest February on record, but it’s not far from it,” said Wes Monier, chief hydrologist at TID. It provided 48 inches last year, plus a little more at season's end to encourage groundwater recharge through flood irrigation.
The Oakdale and South San Joaquin irrigation districts expect normal supplies, thanks to senior rights to the Stanislaus River and conservation projects that have reduced demand over the years. They were among the state's least affected areas during the recent drought. They can start taking water March 1 under an agreement with the federal reservoir, which also supplies parts of the West Side of the Valley.
Speaking of the West Side, many districts were reduced to zero at times because of drought and fish protections in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. The federal Central Valley Project has not yet projected how much will be available this year.
Throughout the Valley, the canals bear water that allows orchards, vineyards, vegetable fields and dairy feed crops to survive the region's hot, dry summers. Hundreds of thousands of people work in processing plants and other businesses tied to farming.
The builders of the irrigation systems knew the weather could have wide swings, so they made the reservoirs among the largest in the nation. The swing is especially pronounced following 2017.
"You will see cycles, but it's odd to go from feast to famine," said Tom Orvis, an OID board member and governmental affairs director for the Stanislaus County Farm Bureau.
Storage in Don Pedro was at 119 percent of the historical average as of Wednesday, the California Department of Water Resources reported. New Melones Reservoir on the Stanislaus stood at 136 percent. That means plenty of room this year for people who boat and fish on the surface and camp along the shoreline.
The Sacramento Bee reported that the U.S. Drought Monitor, compiled by federal agencies, has about 45 percent of the state in moderate to severe drought. Hardest hit are Ventura, Santa Barbara and Los Angeles counties.
“These days, it seems to be hard to get out of that long-term water deficit (even) if we have a wet year now and then,” Daniel Swain of the UCLA Center for Climate Science told The Bee. "We have been in an extended period of unusually warm and dry conditions. One might call that a drought."
David Rizzardo, chief of snow surveys with the state Department of Water Resources, said Californians might want to get used to having weather patterns seesaw from drought to deluge in a very short time.
“This is what the climate people have been warning us about for over a decade now,” he told the Sacramento paper. “One real concern of climate change is just this constant back and forth on the extremes. That makes water management extremely difficult.”