South Fork of Feather River
on February 3. Note the small
amount of water in the riverbed.
Ca. Department of Water Resources photo
By Paul Rogers
San Jose Mercury News (MCT)
SAN JOSE, Calif. — It's been nice. But not enough.
The heavy rains of the past few weeks didn't end the drought. And for the first time in 18 years, mandatory summertime water rationing is all but certain for Silicon Valley.
On Friday, the federal government announced that water levels at major reservoirs across Northern California are still so low that cities — from San Jose to Los Angeles — that receive water from San Francisco Bay's delta should only expect 50 percent of the water this summer that they are contracted to receive.
Worse, farmers were told they may well receive no federal water at all, a decision that will trigger tens of thousands of job losses, fallowed fields and bulldozed orchards across the Central Valley.
"Bottom line: This is going to be a tough year," said Donald Glaser, regional director for the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation. The bureau operates the Central Valley Project, a massive network of dams, canals and pumps that moves water between Northern and Southern California.
Because of public health concerns, farmers usually receive more drastic water cutbacks than cities during droughts. But urban residents also will feel the impact.
"We would expect almost all of the major communities in California to go to some form of mandatory conservation this summer," said Lester Snow, director of the state Department of Water Resources.
"California remains in a very severe drought condition," he added. "The storms that we have had have been great. But they have done nothing to alleviate the drought conditions in the state."
This is the first time since 1991, when the last major drought ended, that so little federal water has been available from the delta. The Santa Clara Valley Water District, which provides water to 1.8 million people in Santa Clara County, Calif., is scheduled to decide March 24 whether to impose mandatory rationing.
The district's board members are considering either a 10 percent or 20 percent cutback, depending on the weather over the next month, said Susan Siravo, a spokeswoman for the district.
Santa Clara County depends on the delta for half of its water, with the other half coming from local groundwater pumping.
"Even if we are getting a lot of local rain, we still need the imported water to supplement it," said Siravo, who called the federal decision "a big hit."
There's no way to say precisely how much more rain Northern California needs to prevent rationing. The summer water picture depends on a complex series of issues, from when the rain falls, to where it falls, to even when endangered fish, like salmon and smelt, are swimming in front of giant delta pumps.
But chances are slim that more rain _ including the storm expected this weekend _ will bring enough water to make up for three dry years.
Friday's decision was solely based on rain patterns, and not the restrictions placed to protect the endangered fish, Glaser said.
The problem so far is that most of the recent rain has seeped into the dry ground and not run off into reservoirs in significant quantities.
Northern California's five largest federal reservoirs were 35 percent full Jan. 27. After the recent heavy rains, they are now 38 percent full _ far short of the 15-year average of 72 percent for this time of year.
In San Jose, the increased rainfall in recent weeks has been dramatic.
On Feb. 1, San Jose had received 4.06 inches of rain for the season, just 51 percent of normal. But in the three weeks after that, an additional 5.18 inches fell, giving the city a total of 9.24 inches now, or 93 percent of normal.
Still, with the reduction in delta water, the Santa Clara Valley Water District will be forced to pump its substantial groundwater basins at a greater rate this summer, Siravo said.
If the district imposes minimal rationing, everyone from homes to businesses to farms will receive 10 percent less. That puts farmers in Santa Clara County in much better shape than their counterparts in the Central Valley, who rely much more heavily on delta water.
"We benefit from a very high water table," said Pete Aiello of Uesugi Farms in Gilroy, Calif., which grows bell peppers, strawberries and other row crops.
"There are a lot of folks here who can survive on their own wells. In the Central Valley, everything on the west side, from Bakersfield to Tracy, those guys are getting hit the hardest."
Farmers use about 80 percent of the water that California residents consume each year. The lack of delta water this year has many farmers in places like Fresno, Merced and Kings counties frantically drilling deeper wells. They are also firing farmhands and taking row crops like cotton, tomatoes and lettuce out of production.
"Farmers in the Westlands Water District have already begun destroying thousands of acres of almond orchards and plan on fallowing over 300,000 acres of land," said Tom Birmingham, general manager of the Westlands Water District in Fresno, the largest recipient of federal water from the delta.
"There is no question that many years worth of investments will be lost."
If large amounts of rain fall in March and April, federal officials might release more water. But they said Friday that there's only about a 10 percent chance it will rain enough to release normal amounts.
Many Silicon Valley residents understand the state's water problems, said Rebecca Schoenenberger, manager of Middlebrook Gardens, a nursery near downtown San Jose. People have been buying drought-tolerant plants and ordering rain barrels to catch water from their gutters to irrigate plants.
"Our customers are aware of what's going on," she said. "They realize we're going into more of a drought season than coming out of one."
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