Modesto-area rainfall was far below average for 2008-09 season

It's a new year for water watchers, one they hope will be wetter than the past three in California.

The 2008-09 rainfall year ended Tuesday with 8.78 inches recorded by the Modesto Irrigation District at its downtown headquarters. That was 72 percent of the historical average of 12.17 inches.

It was not quite as bad in the central Sierra Nevada, where late storms boosted the snowpack. The Tuolumne and Stanislaus rivers, which supply the MID and a few other irrigation districts, are expected to flow at 83 percent of average during the peak snowmelt of spring and early summer, the California Department of Water Resources reported.

The districts have not had the sharp cutbacks that have hit parts of the western and southern San Joaquin Valley, which are under pumping restrictions aimed at protecting fish in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta.

Still, the MID and its neighbors are watching the supply. The Modesto district capped river water at 3½ acre-feet per acre for the 2009 growing season, though growers can use groundwater where it's available.

"We sent out a pretty strong conservation message with the allocation that was set, and it seems to have been taken to heart," said Walt Ward, assistant general manager for water operations at the MID.

He noted that growers and canal workers are working together to reduce spills and other waste.

Modesto's city water system also is making it through, thanks to adequate river and groundwater supplies. Residents face the usual rules — they can water outside just three days a week, and never in the afternoon — but the drought has not brought tighter controls.

The new water year begins amid a blast of heat, something that was missing for much of June. And with that comes a boost in air conditioning. Electricity demand among MID customers peaked at 620 megawatts Monday, district spokeswoman Melissa Williams said.

Modesto's high temperatures will stay at least in the upper 90s through Friday, then dip slightly heading into the Independence Day weekend, according to the National Weather Service.

Something else is heating up: the Pacific Ocean off California. Scientists have detected early signs of the El Niño phenomenon, a warming of seawater that might presage a wet winter.

"It certainly is something we'll be keeping an eye on as we get into the fall," Ward said.

Bee staff writer John Holland can be reached at or 578-2385.