Central Valley

There's good news, bad news about Valley weather

Three blizzards in the Sierra Nevada have put the San Joaquin Valley's water worries on ice -- for now.

The storm siege over the first weekend of the year doubled the snowpack. East of Fresno, Blackcap Basin got 80 inches of snow at 10,500 feet, for example.

But the snowpack must double again by April 1 to fill reservoirs and fully supply farms, cities, industries and hydroelectric plants this summer. Snowmelt provides more than half of California's water supply.

In the San Joaquin Valley -- one of the nation's most lucrative farming belts -- irrigation officials religiously track reservoir storage and snowfall totals on a state Web site. The big boost in precipitation has not lulled them.

"We've still got a long way to go," said Steve Haugen, watermaster of the Kings River Water Association, which tracks water conditions for farms and cities in a 1 million-acre swath of Fresno, Kings and Tulare counties.

The National Weather Service is not forecasting storms in Central California over the next several days.

A familiar dry pattern with night and morning fog is emerging.

In Fresno, the rainfall total is 4.22 inches for the season, well beyond the 1.73 inches at this time last year. The city's rainfall total is 105% of average for this point in the season.

Out in farm country, it's the time of year when growers get crop loans and plan their spring and summer operations.

Irrigation forecasts are at the core of their plans.

"Overall, the precipitation has been good this month," said Steve Chedester, executive director of the San Joaquin River Exchange Contractors Authority, representing owners of 240,000 farmland acres on the Valley's west side. "But if we get a few more big storms, we'll be a lot better."

Chedester and many other west siders watch reservoir and snowfall totals for the northern Sierra. About 1.2 million acres of the west side are irrigated with water from more than 100 miles away.

The water is pumped from the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta. To protect dwindling fish species in the delta, federal authorities since the 1990s have restricted water exports to some west side farmland.

A recent court decision probably will cause additional cutbacks for those farms. The 600,000-acre Westlands Water District in Fresno and Kings counties is affected by those cutbacks.

Those farmers can expect only 30% to 55% of their allotments this year, said Dan Nelson, executive director of the San Luis & Delta-Mendota Water Authority, which represents Westlands and others in the area.

That means many will be shopping for more supplies from districts that have extra river water. If the storms keep coming, there's a better chance to find water at affordable prices.

"Yes, it's good to see the precipitation," Nelson said. "More precipitation gets you more options for water transfers.

"We have been limited by regulatory cutbacks for more than 15 years, and it appears there could be even more cutbacks this year. So we need other options."

On the east side of the Valley, many farmers rely on water from the San Joaquin River at Millerton Lake, which now holds about 68% of its average storage for January.

Last January, Millerton was nearly 85% of average. One reason is that there was more water left over from the previous wet season.

The story is the same for many Sierra reservoirs. In Northern California, Shasta had 110% of average storage last January. This year, it is 66%.

The reservoirs are lower now because the statewide snowpack was only 45% of average last April, said Maurice Roos, chief hydrologist for the California Department of Water Resources in Sacramento. There wasn't much left at the end of the summer.

"The precipitation is doing much better than last year," Roos said. "But reservoirs statewide are still about 20% lower."

The extra room in reservoirs will allow damtenders to capture a big snow runoff this spring, thus preventing possible flooding or release of excess water to the Pacific Ocean.