Despite the rain, drought lingers

The Sierra Nevada snowpack has improved. Waterfalls are starting to thunder in Yosemite Valley. A spring storm adds to the bounty.

It's time to celebrate the end of the state's three-year drought.

Right? Wrong.

The El Niño-powered winter apparently was not a droughtbuster — even though some reservoirs may fill and rainfall totals are above average in two-thirds of California's major cities, including Modesto and Fresno.

"We needed a snowpack about 120 percent of average to make up for the last three years," said Maury Roos, a hydrologist for the California Department of Water Resources. "We're somewhere around 100 percent."

Today is considered the end of the rain and snow season. April and May storms might add a little to the total, but the biggest months likely have passed.

The drought has reduced soil moisture in the watersheds, state officials said, so some of this year's snow will melt into the ground rather than run off into rivers and reservoirs.

This week's storms have been welcome after a dry stretch in the second half of March, said Walter Ward, assistant general manager for water operations at the Modesto Irrigation District.

"The coming of the rain and snow at this point in time is just perfect," he told the district board Tuesday.

The MID and neighboring districts depend on the central Sierra snowpack for most of their water. As of Tuesday, it stood at 88 percent of average, less than the statewide figure.

Sharp water cutbacks are not expected for the Modesto, Turlock, Oakdale and South San Joaquin irrigation districts, thanks to reservoir storage and fairly secure water rights.

That's not the case in parts of the western and southern San Joaquin Valley that have been hit hard by drought and water limits to protect fish in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta.

They got 10 percent of their contracted water from the federal Central Valley Project last year. The allocation rose to 25 percent this year thanks to improved water conditions.

This system relies heavily on the northern Sierra snowpack, which stood at 123 percent of average Tuesday.

El Niño, a warming of the Pacific Ocean at the equator, influenced many storms to hit California this year. It was the best snow season since 2006, though some parts of the Sierra had a bigger year than others.

Conservation will remain a priority this summer, state officials said, but cities may not need to enforce severe water restrictions.

It's a different story in western Fresno County. Westlands Water District farmers probably will idle about 250,000 acres, about the same as last year in the 600,000-acre district.

"Agriculture will have another year of record acres unfarmed," said Westlands spokeswoman Sarah Woolf.

State climatologist Mike Anderson said the state has had one-year reprieves in the middle of six-year droughts during the past century.

"An average year, like this one, is better than a dry year," he said. "But California's water system is too complex to understand just by looking at one year or just the snowpack."

Bee staff writer Michelle Hatfield contributed to this report.

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