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Snowpack promising but drought worries far from being over

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POSTED February 5, 2010 3:04 a.m.
The Stanislaus River basin that the South County depends on to irrigate crops and supply municipal water to Manteca, Lathrop, and Tracy is at 114 percent of normal for snowpack.

“It is good news but I don’t want to leave the impression that (the South San Joaquin Irrigation District) or California are out of the woods yet,” said SSJID General Manager Jeff Shields. “We could still very easily have a fourth year of drought.”

Shields noted that the snow survey that matters is on April 1. That date is magical because rarely does significant snow fall after then.

If no more snow fell and conditions remained steady without any warm weather or heavy rain to melt snow in the higher elevations during the next 54 days, the basin would have 72 percent of normal snowpack on April 1.

The snow survey is a critical barometer of the state’s water supply since the snowpack in Sierra and the Siskiyou mountains are essentially the largest reservoir in California.

Some climatologists have indicated there is a chance for a Pineapple Express type of continuous storm fronts developing in the coming month that would drench the higher elevations with warm rain.

That would prematurely melt the snowpack. While some reservoirs such as New Melones are barely over 50 percent, the available capacity with an earlier-than-usual snow melt could force water system managers for the state and federal governments to resort to larger water releases to avoid flooding problems such as what occurred in January 1997 when 72 square miles between Manteca and Tracy flooded.

While a 72 percent of normal snowpack in the watershed that feeds New Melones would leave SSJID and Oakdale Irrigation District water supply intact based on the district’s historic water rights further codified in an agreement with the Bureau of Reclamation, the SSJID board has adopted a policy to conserve water use as much as possible to make it available to other less fortunate water districts in the state.
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