FRESNO COUNTY — Pine Flat Reservoir is a ghost of a lake in the Fresno County foothills, a puddle in a 326 billion-gallon gorge.
Holding just 16 percent of its capacity, Pine Flat is a leading example of why anxiety is high over the approaching wet seasons potential.
Gone is the healthy water storage that floated California through two dry years. Major reservoirs around the state need gully-washing storms this winter.
Whatever the storms bring this winter, thats what we will have to cope with next summer, said Steve Haugen, watermaster at the Kings River Water Association, which monitors Pine Flat Reservoir.
Northern reservoirs face a similarfate. though water storage is not as low as Pine Flat. Lake Shasta, Lake Oroville, Trinity Lake, New Melones Lake, Don Pedro Lake, and Lake McClure are hovering at one-third to one-half of capacity, far lower than average for late October.
Low reservoir levels should be a wake-up call to Californians, said Mark Cowin, director of the state Department of Water Resources. The state has not declared a drought, but now is the time to prepare additional water conservation ideas for next year.
Both the State Water Project and federal Central Valley Project heavily depend on the Sierra Nevada snowpack, he said. We are now facing real trouble if 2014 is dry.
All eyes will be on Northern California, where the states highest rain and snow totals occur.
Many western San Joaquin Valley farms and more than 20million Southern Californians look to northern reservoirs for water, delivered through extensively plumbed federal and state water projects.
Farmers and city residents who closely watch Shasta and other northern reservoirs might have suffered whiplash last winter. The reservoirs stored a lot of water last year after a stormy November and December, said spokesman Pete Lucero of the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, which operates the Central Valley Project.
But suddenly the spigot turned off.
January through May 2013 were Californias driest in about 90years of recordkeeping, Lucero said.
San Luis Reservoir, which gets water from the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, is at 22percent of its historical average for this time of year.
Dry weather was not the whole story. Environmental restrictions in the Delta early this year resulted in pumping cutbacks and the loss of nearly 1 million acre-feet of water at San Luis.
Federal officials are required to use water releases from Northern California reservoirs to help protect nature, including fish such as Delta smelt and salmon.
Millerton Lake near Fresno is at 152 percent of average, but that has nothing to do with weather.
Federal officials are maintaining a higher level in Millerton to provide water needed for releases in the long-running project to restore the San Joaquin River. Bureau leaders say Millertons storage has been helped by farms and cities that have conserved well this year.
The lake is only a little more than one-tenth of the size of Shasta. Millertons water is sent to customers along the eastern side of the Valley, including 15,000 growers on 1million acres in the Friant Water Authority.
Cities including Fresno and Orange Cove buy federal water from Millerton.
A little farther south on the Kings River, Pine Flat Reservoir has a little more than 150,000 acre-feet of water, with a capacity of 1 million acre-feet.
An acre-foot of water contains about 326,000 gallons, or enough for an average family for about 18 months.
Last winter, the mountains above Pine Flat Reservoir received the ninth-worst precipitation total in 116 seasons, Haugen said.
He said he does not hold much hope for a record-breaking winter, based on 62 years of snowpack data for the area. During that time, big winters happened when the eastern Pacific Ocean was warm as part of the phenomenon known as El Niño.
This year, the ocean is not warm, according to federal scientists. It isnt cool either, as it would be in La Niña, which sometimes makes for drier, colder weather in parts of California.
Without El Niño or La Niña, forecasting the wet season is much tougher.
The National Weather Services Climate Prediction Center does not give many clues about California rain and snow in November. Federal scientists say its even money on average rainfall.
At the Weather Services Hanford office, meteorologist Paul Iniguez said Central Californias weather appears to be in a holding pattern.
In the next two weeks, a continuation of the current dry pattern looks likely, he said. A big rain event in the next two to three weeks appears, for now, unlikely.