Dry spell worries SJ Valley farmers

02/27/2013 11:11 PM

02/28/2013 12:18 AM

California is poised to shatter an all-time weather record with the driest January-February period in recorded history across much of the Sierra Nevada. That's bad news for valley farmers who depend on precipitation across the Sierra to fill a system of reservoirs with the water that's needed to irrigate their crops.

The problem for farmers and other water users is being compounded by the unusually dry weather last year. Back-to-back years with a below-average Sierra Nevada snowpack mean there's far less water available.

The central Sierra snowpack is about 68 percent of normal for this time of year, the California Department of Water Resources reported Tuesday -- a tad worse than the statewide mountain average of 69 percent.

With no storms on the horizon, January and February have produced only 2.2 inches of Sierra precipitation -- the worst mark since that kind of record keeping began in 1920 and 13 percent of the two-month average. The next-driest year was 4.0 inches in 1991.

Storm systems have moved through Merced County and up into the Sierra, but there's been little precipitation to show for it. A brief storm brought some snow to the foothills and higher elevations about a week ago, but that's been about it during the first two months of 2013.

In the past month in Merced, there's only been 0.38 inches of rain. Normal precipitation for the same period is 2.17 inches, so it's nearly 2 inches below where it should be at this point.

Could still recover

Maury Roos, chief hydrologist at the California Department of Water Resources, said a wet March or April could turn the dry conditions around. It has happened before, notably with a "Miracle March" in 1991 that reversed a similarly dry winter.

Absent any big storms, however, it is likely the state's major reservoirs will end the summer below average, with potentially grim implications for boaters and other water users across the state.

"The forecasts still don't look that juicy," said Roos. "If it stays totally dry, then the only water we have would be left over from the snow that's now on the hills."

The dry conditions have been caused by a persistent blocking ridge of high pressure off the coast that has diverted storms around the state. Forecasters called it "highly unusual" to see a blocking ridge stick around for two months.

January and February normally are the wettest months in California. To essentially lose both from the state's water supply picture has prompted a lot of cold sweats across the state.

"We entered into this water year in really good shape; in fact, we were almost in flood-control conditions back in December," said Dan Nelson, executive director of the San Luis and Delta-Mendota Water Authority, which delivers water to a vast area in the San Joaquin Valley. "So to be in this situation now is pretty frustrating."

Nelson noted that farmers are beginning to make planting decisions for the year ahead. Many have scaled back their plans as a result of the reduced water supply.

Faced with a growing dry spell and water pumping cuts to protect fish, west San Joaquin Valley farmers can expect only a quarter of their water deliveries, federal authorities said Monday.

West Side water leaders say that if the federal allocation does not increase, 200,000 acres will not be in production, and the region will take a $1.5 billion hit.

They acknowledged the dry spell but blame the problem on the pumping cutbacks to protect delta smelt at the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta.

"This insanity has to stop," said general manager Thomas Birmingham of Westlands Water District, a 600,000-acre farm district.

Monday's initial forecast announcement by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation said that its agricultural water customers south of the delta would receive only 25 percent of their contracted water amounts.

Had the smelt protections not been necessary, Nelson said, the forecast probably would have been 40 percent.

The delivery forecast may increase if the final months of winter improve. But Nelson said many farmers can't wait. "There will be a lot of land fallowed," he said. "There's just not enough water."

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