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Water hopes drying up

Zero-allocation foreseen , but some try to stay optimistic

Tim Hearden, Capital Press, February 26, 2009
A young girl calls to her mother from the dock of a lagoon off the Sacramento River in Anderson. Though recent rains have left many waterways teeming with water, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation has announced severe cutbacks to Central Valley Project contractors.
Glenn Ridlon of Redding, rides along the Sacramento River in Anderson on Wednesday, Feb. 18. If rains continue, the Bureau of Reclamation could implement allocations under what it calls its median forecast.
Zero may not necessarily mean zero.

Central Valley farms in California might get some federal water as a result of the recent rain and snow, but it would take "an incredible storm" to get them a significant amount.

So asserts Don Glaser, director of the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation's Mid-Pacific Region based in Sacramento.

"I don't see that as being reasonably likely," Glaser told a gathering of reporters and local farmers in Redding on Friday, Feb. 20.

The third straight year of drought in the state could leave Central Valley Project contractors with no water for agriculture, Glaser announced in one of three press conferences held throughout the state.

Even if water runoff exceeds 55 percent of the historical average in the state, the best that farmers could likely hope for from their water districts is 10 percent of their normal allocations, Glaser said.

"It would just take an unprecedented event" to increase that allocation, the director said.

The bureau's projections were based on Feb. 1 runoff totals. Since then, many communities in California have received better-than-average precipitation , as a steady barrage of rain and snow has left some estuaries teeming with water.

Last weekend, a storm covered virtually the entire state and drenched some areas in the north. Marysville-Yuba City and Napa each registered more than two inches of rain in essentially a 48-hour period from Saturday night to Monday night, and rainfall was so heavy at times on Monday that Interstate 5 was flooded out at Lakehead, about a half-hour north of Redding.

The deluge dumped 3 to 5 inches of rain over the Shasta Lake inflow in a few hours on Monday, and the lake rose 7.43 feet from early Monday to early Tuesday, the Redding Record Searchlight reported.

As of Tuesday, Feb. 24, Redding had received 8.54 inches of rain in February, nearly double the norm of 4.54 for the month so far, but its seasonal total of 16.93 inches is still well below the average of 22..67 inches.

In Fresno, 2.43 inches of rain has fallen so far this month, well above the 1.72 inches that would have normally come. But the city's 6.15 inches since July 1 is below the average of 7.25 inches.

The weekend storm - and another one that was expected for Wednesday and Thursday, Feb. 26-27 - are part of a wet pattern that promises to linger into March, said Brooke Bingaman, a National Weather Service forecaster in Sacramento.

Another "healthy wet system" could arrive by Saturday, dropping an inch or so in Stockton and up to 3 inches in Redding and Red Bluff, Bingaman said. The mountains could see another 4 to 5 feet of snow, she said.

"It's definitely looking a lot more optimistic than it was back in January," said Bingaman. Adding that forecasters believe we're back into a typical winter pattern.

"Hopefully it will bring us closer to normal for the winter season, or maybe even above normal," she said. "Of course, we're still trying to make up for the last two winters that were dry, but ... at least we can stop the bleeding if we continue this wet pattern into March."

If the rain continues, the Bureau of Reclamation could implement allocations under what it calls its median forecast. Under that scenario, ag would get 10 percent of its normal deliveries while urban areas would get 60 percent and wildlife reserves and water rights holders would get full allocations.

The bureau estimates there's a 50 percent chance that enough runoff will occur to trigger its median forecast. The zero-allocation for ag is foreseen under the bureau's dry-year forecast, which it predicts has a 90 percent chance of being exceeded.

It not only depends on how much rain falls, but where it falls, Glaser said. In some situations, a heavy rain could cause "localized flooding but no improvement to the water supply," he said.

As it is, Shasta Lake has 800,000 fewer acre feet than it did a year ago, when it was then 1 million acre feet below what it typically contains at this time of year, he said.

In a normal year, Reclamation delivers between 6 million and 7 million acre feet to its Central Valley Project contractors above and below the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta.

This year, it expects to deliver only about 3 million acre feet to users.

"We estimate that there will be about 1 million acres of land north and south of the delta that will not receive water," Glaser said.

The state's Department of Water Resources is set to update its runoff forecast on March 10, taking into account the recent storms. It'll take the bureau a couple of weeks to analyze the forecast before it updates its own forecasts, Glaser said.

Glaser said he believes final allocations will fall somewhere in between the bureau's dry-forecast and median-forecast scenarios.

"It's going to take a lot to make up for two years of critically dry conditions," he said.

Staff writer Tim Hearden is based in Shasta Lake. E-mail: thearden@capitalpress.com
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