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Warm January making drought situation worse

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POSTED January 17, 2009 3:13 a.m.

Near record highs in January are setting the stage for California to go from a blue state to a dry state.

January — the wettest month of the year on the critical Sierra watershed — is shaping up as possibly the direst on record. And that is making water managers such as South San Joaquin Irrigation District General Manager Jeff Shields a bit nervous.

“We’ve been blessed,” Shields said in reference to the SSJID’s storage and conveyance facilities, superior water rights, and access to one of the heaviest precipitation areas in California.

But even so, Shields said the rainfall figures and continued dry weather aren’t good.

“It’s going to be tight,” Shields said of the upcoming irrigation season. “There’s going to be a lot of pressure on our guys in the field not to let water spill over fields. That means cutting irrigation off when fields are two thirds flooded.”

There are ominous signs every where that this is shaping up as the third year of a drought that could have major consequences for urban, farm, and industrial users as well as minimal flows needed to sustain the ecological systems of rivers and the Delta.

• New Melones Reservoir on the Stanislaus River is dropping at the rate of 79 acre feet a day at a time of year when it is expected to grow by hundreds of acre feet a day.

• Rainfall on the watershed above Tri-Dam’s Beardsley Dam on the Stanislaus is usually 6.87 inches in January, the wettest month of the year. As of Friday morning it was .95 inches for January

• Sierra snow pack — the biggest reservoir in the state — was at 67 percent of normal as of Monday.

The rainfall pattern on the watershed above Beardsley tells a sobering story.

It was 6 inches during November when the average is 4.8 inches. It was at 93 percent of normal, which is 5.74 inches, in December. It is lagging by almost 6 inches for January with under two weeks left in the month. The normal for February is 6.57 inches.

There is already a 5 inch plus deficit so far this water year. Even if by some chance it ended up as a normal year, the Department of Water Resources warns that it won’t break the back of the drought.

New Melones — the biggest reservoir on the Stanislaus — has a 2,419,000 acre feet capacity. It was at 1,151,316 acre feet Friday morning and still dropping 799 acre feet a day.

Forecasters expect the 2008-09 weather year to be dry again based on temperatures in the eastern and central Pacific Ocean being cooler than normal. Historically, this changes weather patterns and reduces precipitation in California.
Department of Water Resources has already indicated water deliveries to cities and agricultural will be just 15 percent of normal.

The state now has 35 million residents — 14 million more than back in 1977 during the last severe drought period.

SSJID is expected to be in a fairly decent position for this spring given the capacity of the Tri-Dam System it operates with Oakdale Irrigation District. But that unravels if January and February snow fall fails to at least hit normal levels.

SSJID is critical to 55,000 acres of farmland around Manteca, Ripon, and Escalon. The agency also supplies municipal water to the cities of Manteca, Lathrop, and Tracy.

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