Mariposa & Yosemite

Sierra snow survey is cause for drought concern

Water from a Modesto Irrigation District canal flows into a local almond orchard. Growers survived last year’s drought by stretching the time between irrigation or growing fewer crops.
Water from a Modesto Irrigation District canal flows into a local almond orchard. Growers survived last year’s drought by stretching the time between irrigation or growing fewer crops.

Water managers liked what they got at Christmas -- a cold, wet storm that dropped snow in the Sierra Nevada.

But that gift from the sky will have to be repeated several times over if California is to avoid a third-straight year of drought.

"It's going to take an above- average year to get us out of the hole," said Walt Ward, assistant general manager for water operations at the Modesto Irrigation District.

The Sierra snowpack was 76 percent of average Tuesday, compared with 60 percent a year ago, the California Department of Water Resources reported.

The drought concern varies around the state, depending on reservoir storage, water rights and other factors.

The MID and the Turlock Irrigation District are in relatively good shape thanks to long-held rights to the Tuolumne River. These agencies are being careful with their water but likely would not force deep cuts on growers unless the drought worsened.

On the West Side, several districts have had sharp reductions because of the drought and efforts to protect fish in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta.

Among them is the Del Puerto Water District, which provides federal water from the delta to about 170 farms between Vernalis and Santa Nella.

In 2008, Del Puerto had to get by with 40 percent of its contracted supply. If 2009 is dry, the allotment could range from zero to 10 percent, General Manager Bill Harrison said.

That would mean widespread fallowing of fields where annual crops are grown, he said, and possible damage to almonds and other permanent crops if supplemental water cannot be found.

"That's uncharted terri- tory," Harrison said. "I don't know how anyone survives a zero-to-10 percent year."

He said the district does have some water reserved in San Luis Reservoir, to make up for delta pumping limits last summer, but the federal government could send it to wildlife refuges or other higher priority uses if needed.

No water rationing

The drought also has taken a toll statewide on cattle grazing land that is not irrigated. Many ranchers have reduced their herds or bought more supplemental hay than usual, according to the California Farm Bureau Federation.

The drought has not yet brought water rationing in most cities. In Modesto, the supply from wells and the MID appears to be adequate for 2009, said Nick Pinhey, director of public works.

Should the drought worsen, he said, the city would toughen rules that now allow residents to water outdoors three days a week, and never between noon and 7 p.m.

"Thus far, things are looking OK," Pinhey said. "We are monitoring the situation."

The MID and TID likely will set their allocations for growers in late winter or early spring. Usually, a dry year prompts them to reduce the amount of water available at the lowest price and then charge more for higher use to encourage conservation.

In 2008, the drought prompted the TID to cap total water use. Most growers had enough to get by, but some stretched the time between irrigations, used supplemental groundwater or grew two rather than three feed crops, board member Randy Fiorini said.

"Essentially, we're entering this winter with less water behind the dam, so if we have a repeat of last year's rainfall, we'll have less water to work with," said Fiorini, a farmer and past president of the Association of California Water Agencies.

More calls to conserve

The drought has renewed calls from environmentalists for increased water conservation by farmers, but Fiorini said plenty already is being done. He noted the use of drip and microsprinkler systems, which direct water to plant roots, and monitoring of evaporation so the irrigation happens only when needed.

The MID and TID also have to release some water for environmental reasons, mainly salmon in the lower Tuolumne, but the rules are much less strict than in districts that draw from the delta.

The rainy season runs into early spring, so there's plenty of time to catch up, water experts said. But they also warn of nature's whims, such as the bone-dry March and April that followed the promising start to last winter.

"Let it rain and snow some more," Harrison said. "That's what we need."

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