Rain Improves Central Valley Agricultural Water Picture

Times Staff Writer

Heavy spring rains in Northern California appear to have rescued most Central Valley farmlands from major water rationing, but the San Francisco Bay Area and the east San Joaquin Valley still face severe shortages, state and federal officials said Monday.

Weekend rainfall that filled some reservoirs to overflowing prompted officials to talk about further relaxing threatened cutbacks in water deliveries to farmers.

“We’re optimistic now about this year, and it makes us more comfortable about next year. We’re really in pretty good shape considering how bleak things looked in February,” said John B. Budd, a spokesman for the federal Bureau of Reclamation, which manages the Central Valley Project.

Budd said there have been several more inches of rain since the federal agency announced last week that it would be able to supply 80% of its normal delivery instead of the 50% it had expected a month ago.


With an 80% supply, Budd said, “agricultural users are in pretty good shape.”

State officials, who had once predicted that they might have to cut back water deliveries to agricultural regions by as much as 40%, also eased their predictions to 20% last week.

And even the prediction of a 20% cut “was based on . . . the worst-case scenario,” said William J. Helms, drought response coordinator for the state Water Resources Department, which manages the State Water Project. “I think these latest storms have cut into that.” Only a month ago, an exceptionally dry December, January and February had prompted both government agencies to warn that all farming areas of the state would face severe water shortages this summer. For example, in the Mt. Shasta storage areas where normal rainfall is 30 inches for the three-month period, Budd said officials registered 10.5 inches. The 9.4 inches normally recorded in February, he said, dropped to 1.3 inches.

Then the March rains came, producing more than twice the normal monthly rainfall in Northern California.


Last weekend’s storm forced officials to release more water through Folsom Dam near Sacramento as insurance against flooding.

“Folsom will create problems for us, because people see water being released from there and then we still talk about shortages,” said Budd. “The problem results from the fact that Folsom provides only about 10% of the total system storage, and that basin happened to get a lot of precipitation.”

What still didn’t get much precipitation were the Hetch Hetchy and Pardee reservoirs, which feed the San Francisco Bay Area, and the Millerton Lake area, which supplies the Friant-Kern Canal in the east San Joaquin Valley.

“Those reservoirs are greatly below normal, and there is virtually very little chance of improvement,” Helms said.

Budd said the Friant-Kern Canal system is hydrologically independent of the Central Valley system so officials cannot divert water from the Sacramento Basin into that system.

Helms said the snowpack in the northern and central Sierra is about 90% of normal in contrast to the southern Sierra where it is only 70%.