Chances grow for fourth dry year in, around Modesto

A woman crosses 10th Street near H Street in downtown Modesto during a rainstorm in December.
A woman crosses 10th Street near H Street in downtown Modesto during a rainstorm in December. jlee@modbee.com

One 117th of January’s accustomed rain has fallen so far into the downtown gauge of the Modesto Irrigation District.

Elsewhere in that 11th Street building, and at irrigation districts across the Northern San Joaquin Valley, water managers are bracing for yet another year of tight supplies.

Yes, it rained a lot in December, just shy, in fact, of the record for Modesto of 7.2 inches, set in 1906. But those storms were fairly warm, and the snowpack is well below average in the Sierra Nevada. That is the main source of water for farms that brought an estimated $10.5 billion in gross income to Stanislaus, Merced and San Joaquin counties in 2013.

“The water season is not shaping up again,” said Walt Ward, water resources manager for Stanislaus County, at last week’s meeting of the Stanislaus Water Coalition. “The snowpack is very behind a normal year. ... We’re probably facing a fourth year of drought.”

Some irrigation districts, such as Oakdale and South San Joaquin on the Stanislaus River, might make it through the hot growing season once again thanks to strong water rights and adequate storage. Others, such as MID and Turlock Irrigation District on the Tuolumne River, could be in for another year of substantially reduced deliveries.

Some, like the Del Puerto Water District on the West Side, could be even worse off because of their reliance on the federal Central Valley Project, which strains to balance the demands of farms and fish.

“Our landowners and water users will likely receive a zero percent allocation for the second year in a row, and everyone should prepare for the regional economic ripple effect of that,” said Anthea Hansen, general manager at Del Puerto, which straddles Interstate 5 from Tracy to Santa Nella. “Last year, one-fourth of our farmed acres had to be fallowed; 2015 could be even worse.”

This district is one of several in the Valley that have had reductions, even in wetter years, to protect fish from the massive pumps that deliver their water from the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. Farmers have boosted their use of wells, if they have them, or bought expensive water from distant agencies that are in better shape. Some have taken water from cotton, tomato and other annual crops so they can keep almonds and other permanent crops alive.

The Central California Irrigation District also gets the federal water for its farmers between Crows Landing and Mendota, but the cutback is much less because of an agreement recognizing its rights prior to the system’s construction. It got 75 percent of its supply last year, the minimum under the contract.

General Manager Chris White said the 2015 allotment will be announced in late February, based on runoff into Shasta Lake, the main storage for the federal system.

The district also taps groundwater. White said the condition of the aquifer after the 2014 growing season is still being assessed, but he has a “gut feeling” that it came through OK.

Troubling weather pattern

The odd pattern to the storm season – very rainy but not so snowy in December, then little of either in January – has troubled water managers.

“There was some reason for optimism, but here we are 14 days into January, and it has been very dry,” White said Wednesday.

Modesto gets an average of 2.34 inches of rain in January, usually the peak month in a storm season that runs mostly from November through March, according to MID. It has recorded 0.2 inches this month.

The rain has boosted grasses for cattle ranchers on the Valley’s eastern and western flanks, along with winter feed crops for dairy farms. But the bulk of the region’s bounty grows in the heat of summer and needs ample snowmelt for irrigation. As of Thursday, the central Sierra stood at 33 percent of average.

Storm outlook is grim

The first two years of drought weren’t too hard on most districts, thanks to reservoirs still holding some of the heavy runoff of 2010 and 2011. Last year was bad for two reasons: The rain and snow were even farther below average, and the storage was drawn down.

MID General Manager Roger Van Hoy told his board Tuesday that it might not be able to match the 2014 deliveries, which were capped at 2 acre-feet per acre. And the chances of storms this month? “There’s not a whole lot on the horizon,” said John Davids, irrigation operations manager.

The federal Climate Prediction Center projects a below-average chance of storms through January but somewhat improved conditions the rest of winter.

MID plans to discuss the outlook at grower meetings tentatively scheduled for March 3 in Modesto and March 4 in Waterford. TID will hold two such gatherings this week, to prepare customers for the possibility of another rough year.

TID spokesman Calvin Curtin said the rainfall for November and December combined was slightly below average. “However, based on historical data, there is only an 18 percent chance of an average precipitation or more for the year,” he said. “Each day that passes without rain substantially impacts the probabilities in the negative direction.”

Bad, but not the worst

As bad as it is, conditions have been worse – just a year ago, in fact. The snowpack hovered around 10 percent of average after a dry stretch that started in early December. Storms in late January and later helped somewhat.

“We are substantially better off than we were at this time last year, but we are way below normal,” said Jeff Shields, general manager of the South San Joaquin Irrigation District.

It and OID have prior rights to water stored in the federal New Melones Reservoir, but it has been drawn down to serve farmers and provide river flows aimed at helping fish. Shields said the outlook depends on storms the rest of winter.

OID General Manager Steve Knell said about a third of the mountain rainfall, rather than running off into New Melones Reservoir, has soaked into soils that are still dry from three years of drought.

“Are we done yet in doing that?” he said. “Can’t say. All we hope for at this time is that we are done filling up the mountain soil profile and subsequent rain events will start yielding ‘true runoff’ into the reservoir. We remain optimistic.”

The Oakdale district has sold water to drought-starved areas in recent years, and it plans to do so again in 2015 with water freed up by fallowing some of its pastureland. The participating owners would use some of the proceeds to make their acreage more water-efficient for the future. OID also has increased its groundwater use.

Things change

California has seen many kinds of weather patterns in its recorded history. It had a six-year drought from 1987 through 1992, followed by half a dozen years that were mostly wet. A moderate drought set in from 2007 to 2009, followed by two wet years.

And things can change within a single storm season. Perhaps the most dramatic was in 1991, which was bone dry through February but then got a “March miracle” that is still talked about.

“Winter is not over,” said Hansen at Del Puerto, “so the positive hope I have is that we still receive some snowpack and precipitation, as every bit helps and counts.”

Bee staff writers Garth Stapley and J.N. Sbranti contributed to this report.

Bee staff writer John Holland can be reached at jholland@modbee.com or (209) 578-2385.


WHEN: 5:30 p.m. Tuesday and Wednesday

WHERE: District office, 333 E. Canal Drive, Turlock