The March of rain just flat stopped

Blue skies, temperatures into the 70s, a little wind, a few clouds here and there -- but no rain.

That's been the story in March.

Even with a light drizzle anticipated for late tonight, March 2008 will be one of the driest in Modesto's history, with only 0.01 inches of rain measured.

"We've had lousy Marches in the past, but we've never been this dry," said Jared Leighton, me-teorologist with the National Weather Service in Sacramento.

Actually, 1934 and 1956 were drier -- no rain fell in March those years, according to Modesto Irrigation District records.

Leighton said tonight's mist will be just enough to get the streets wet and cars dirty.

March has been so dry that last weekend's water demand was near peak summer levels, said Walt Ward, MID's assistant general manager of water operations. Canals began filling March 19, he said. The warmer weather, lack of rain and longer days are increasing demand on the water supply.

"March is one of the four wettest months of the whole year. Our expectation was to have an average March," Ward said.

The only measurable rainfall recorded this month in Modesto was March 13. The historical March average rainfall recorded at the MID's downtown station is 1.93 inches.

For the rainfall season, which runs through June, Modesto has received 11.63 inches of rain, only about a half-inch from the yearly average of 12.22.

In the big picture, Sierra snowpack levels are more important to water watchers than valley rainfall totals. A measurement this week reported an average snowpack in the mountains. Snow melts and runs down to reservoirs, which feed rivers and canals -- and supply water for homes, businesses and the region's economic engine, agriculture.

There's enough snow in the central Sierra that the Dodge Ridge and Bear Valley ski resorts plan to be open daily through April 13, officials said.

Though the region's reservoirs still have water stored from last year, a dry season in 2008 could make 2009's water outlook bleak, Ward said. "We don't know what will happen in 2009."

'High and dry'

The dry patch comes from weather patterns pushing moist air well north of Sacramento to the California-Oregon border, Leighton said. That has left the Northern San Joaquin Valley with "a lot of wind, but not a lot of moisture," he said.

"It leaves us high and dry."

December, January and February are the wettest months, with historic averages of 2.08, 2.34 and 2.07 inches of rain, respectively, according to MID measurements dating back to 1888. This January was wetter with 5.87 inches, though December and February came close to the historical averages.

Though the phrase is that April showers bring May flowers, April historically averages less than March -- less than an inch of rain, according to MID records.

Residents should remember that many cities, Modesto included, enforce odd-even watering restrictions year-round. Those with questions should call their city offices or log on to their city Web pages.

Bee staff writer Michelle Hatfield can be reached at mhatfield@modbee.com or 578-2339.