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California’s cup still two thirds empty

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POSTED April 2, 2014 12:46 a.m.

April showers fuel May wildfires.

So says South San Joaquin Irrigation District General Manager Jeff Shields who isn’t trying to put a damper on the current storm system passing over California.

“I think all the rain we can get is wonderful,” Shields said Tuesday.

Shields quickly added the late rain is far from enough to break California’s drought conditions plus it is fuelling the potential for another Golden State scrooge — massive wildfires.

Since it is his job to safeguard what is arguably the most valuable resource for farmers that raise crops on 33,000 acres in SSJID territory as well as provide domestic water for 173,000 residents in Manteca, Tracy, and Lathrop Shields tend to be pragmatic.

So you’ll have to pardon him for not singing in the rain especially since the critical water forecast survey on April 1 had the Sierra snowpack at only 32 percent of normal.

“It’s better but not stellar,” Shields said. “We still have very severe drought conditions throughout California.”

It has improved SSJID’s position a bit. The recent rains have reduced demand for irrigation water. Farmers in Division 9 south of Manteca and west of Ripon, as an example, passed on 3,700 acre feet of water during the 14-day run that just ended.

In ordered to meet this year’s water needs, the district will still be dipping into the water conservation account it has at New Meloness Reservoir that they filled with 77,000 acre feet of water over the last two years. But instead of having to use all of it, the district will now only have to tap 60,000 acre feet.

Shields is hoping for a strong spring rain and snow pattern that could theoretically mean the district would only need to take 30,000 acre feet from the account. Three things, though, are certain:

• Snow after April 1 tends to be more flurries with less falling to the ground due to warmer temperatures.

• The district would not have been able to meet all the water needs this year without the carryover for the past two seasons in the conservation account.

• The late rain is triggering a surge in vegetation growth setting the stage for a potentially dangerous fire season.

Shields noted the late rains and snow allowed the district to make an emergency water sale to Tuolumne County as well as raise the water level at Woodward Reservoir between May 1 and July 7 so it could be used for recreation before lowering it again to conserve water.

He also emphasized that while the district through ongoing conservation can meet the needs of farmers this year and that the cities will get 80 percent of their contracted water they use to supplement groundwater, next year could be a different story.

Not only is the conservation account being reduced but if a fourth year of drought pops up, everyone in the district including cities will be in trouble.

Shields said that is why everyone must conserve now to make sure there is an adequate supply of water for 2015.

He noted that models that show El Nino will form next year — a cold underwater current some 200 feet below the Pacific Ocean that triggers heavy rain and snow in California — but it can end virtually overnight.

“It (El Nino) was detected before the current weather season and it disappeared in a day,” Shields said. 

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