Summer Fall-ing

Summer is nearly over.

And not surprisingly, the season was hot and dry.

Even slightly hotter than usual in the Northern San Joaquin Valley, according to data compiled by the Modesto Irrigation District.

Although high temperature averages from June to September hit or exceeded historic averages for those months (July was slightly cooler), most people would say it was a lot milder this year.

And it was -- but only in terms of the total number of days that area temperatures hit or topped 100 degrees.

The summer of 2007, which officially gives way to autumn early Sunday morning, recorded 10 such days.

During the summer of 2006, the century mark was reached or eclipsed on 19 days, including a run of eight straight days and 11 out of 12 during last year's historic and deadly mid-July heat wave.

Looking at this summer's monthly mean temperatures -- determined by averaging each day's high and low -- the area remained in a hotter-than-normal mode.

So, what are we to make of that?

Is there a pattern here? Is the drought really here? Are we looking at another dry winter, dry spring and hotter-than-normal summer?

What about the sprinkles this week and the predictions for more today?

Strictly a September anomaly that doesn't figure into the long-range forecast, according to the National Weather Serv-ice.

Looking ahead to December, January and February, there appears to be some reason for pessimism -- despite what the Old Farmer's Almanac is predicting: Above-normal rainfall and snowfall in Northern California and near-normal levels in the south, including the Modesto area.

"We've may have entered a La Niña phase with water temperatures near the equator below normal," said Karl Swanberg, a forecaster based at the National Weather Service office in Sacramento.

When that happens, Swanberg said, conditions "generally are wetter in the Pacific Northwest. Right now, we're in a weak-to-moderate phase with the (winter storm) bull's-eye on the Pacific Northwest (Oregon and Washington)."

'Some good, soaking rains'

The Northern San Joaquin Valley, he said, is in a "tweener" position -- a "no man's land" between the hoped-for wet and dreaded dry conditions.

"It could go either way in your area," Swanberg said. "We really don't know."

Most Modesto area farmers had plenty of water available this summer, but there is some concern about the future.

"It's been a dry year, but we got through it all right," said Paul Wenger, who grows almonds and walnuts outside of Modesto. "Even though it hasn't been as hot, we need some rain this winter.

"I mean we need some good, soaking rains in November, December and January and some good snowfall in the mountains."

Walt Ward, the irrigation district's assistant general man-ager of water operations, agreed, especially with the snowfall part of Wenger's comments.

A good snowfall, Ward said, means there would be plenty of runoff flowing into Don Pedro Reservoir as it melts in spring.

Water created by melting snow is the reservoir's primary source of replenishment.

And the reservoir is the pri-mary source of water for most Modesto and Turlock area farmers and ranchers.

It also provides a significant share of the drinking water that Modesto area residents consume, not to mention boating and other recreational activities.

When irrigation season ends, probably at the end of October, Ward said, the reservoir will be at its low point for the year -- at an elevation of 750 to 760 feet.

"Another meager snowpack means we're going to be going into next year's irrigation season probably below that," Ward said. "And you don't want to do that. That's when we start to have problems."

Those problems range from boat launching ramps left dry to reduced irrigation water allotments and dangerously low flows in the Tuolumne River, threatening salmon and other creatures and plants that depend on the river for life.

Orin Johnson, a Hughson resident and commercial beekeeper, said the area's already dry conditions are hard on his bees, who play a vital role in the area's crop production. "People don't realize it, but bees, directly and indirectly, are responsible for about a third of our food," Johnson said.

Bees not only produce honey, they pollinate other flowering plants -- everything from alfalfa to almond trees.

Johnson said the dry conditions have made it difficult to sustain his bees naturally, so he's had to resort to supplemental feeding.

"Bees are like cattle," he said, "they need pasture to forage on."

Stressed bees bad for almonds

Persistently dry conditions, Johnson said, will dry up plant life that bees feed on, disrupting their natural pollination and honey cycle. That natural cycle keeps them healthy.

Johnson said a prolonged dry spell would stress the bees, making them more susceptible to mites and disease-carrying viruses that would kill them off and reduce their effectiveness.

Without bees, almond trees cannot produce the nuts that have become a vital part of the area's agricultural economy.

"Most of my bees are in pretty good shape," Johnson said. "(But) I'm not looking forward to the possibility of another dry winter and spring."

At this point, significant rainfall this weekend -- if it materializes -- wouldn't do Johnson's bees much good.

The MID's Ward said a lot of rain this weekend could signal trouble ahead.

"One of our wettest Septembers on record happened in 1976, right before the 1976-77 drought," Ward said. "So, (significant) rainfall in September is not a good omen."


Chart compares the average high summer temperatures recorded in Modesto from 2003 to 2007.
  2003 2004 2005 2006 2007 Historical

high temp.

June 89° 88° 84° 92° 89° 88°
July 97° 93° 96° 98° 92° 94°
August 90° 91° 95° 91° 93° 92°
September 89° 88° 86° 88° 87° 87°
No. days 100°+ 15 6 17 19 10  

Source: Modesto Irrigation District

Bee staff writer Michael G. Mooney can be reached at mmooney@modbee.com or 578-2384.