California

Rain brings joy, if not a fix, to the drought-ridden Central Valley

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Ventura County firefighters clear the road after a mudslide in Camarillo. Eleven homes were evacuated and 20 people displaced for a few hours early on Nov. 1.
(Marcus Yam, Los Angeles Times)

The grapevines needed to be covered. The last of the tomato harvest came to a halt. A corn maze turned to mud. The ink ran on a “Pray for Rain” sign in an orchard of dead citrus trees.

One modest, seasonal storm wasn’t going to reverse California’s historic drought.

Yet across the Central Valley and Sierra Nevada mountains, where livelihoods and entire towns are threatened, there was joy Saturday as rain fell and snow piled up.

“The rancherias need the water really bad,” said Gera Diaz, owner of Hye Street Grill in Selma, a farm town surrounded by grapevines and fruit trees.

Diaz’s restaurant, usually bustling on a Saturday morning, was completely empty. He shrugged.

“They’re in the fields. They’ll come for lunch after they check for damage,” he said. “Some will say, ‘If only the rain came two weeks earlier.’ Others will say, ‘If only the rain had come two weeks later.’ But everyone will say, ‘I’m thankful that it rained.’ ”

The last time there was measurable rain in the region was a brief summer storm in July. Going into the fourth year of drought, farmers have pumped so much water that the ground in the Central Valley is sinking and the mountains rising. Federal irrigation water was cut off to many of the area’s farmers and at least 5% of irrigated cropland is fallow. According to a University of California study, state agriculture has taken a $1.5-billion hit, and more than 17,000 farm jobs have disappeared.

In Patterson, the secret message hidden in Fantozzi Farms’ corn maze this year was “California Dying Of Thirst” — visible from above. The maze was half as big as usual because of lack of water.

The rain hit the maze about 4:30 p.m. on Friday. It was Halloween — the busiest night — and a crowd had to be sent away because of mud and heavy showers.

“It’s all right,” said owner Jim Fantozzi. “We also had beans we needed to get in. But any rain is welcome rain.”

By 9 p.m., snow was falling in the Sierra high country. At his Lodgepole home in Sequoia National Park, filmmaker Steve Bumgardner shouted “Snow!” to a living room of friends and everyone rushed outside.

“For the past two years winter hasn’t existed. Some of the seasonal employees had never even seen it snow,” he said. “Everybody has it on their mind, the lack of water. So there was this extra quality of wonder.”

It’s mountain snow that melts and fills California’s rivers and irrigation canals. The Sierra snowpack was 18% of normal at the last measurement in April.

Late Friday night, rain moved into Southern California. Some parts of Los Angeles County got a half-inch. In Ventura County, officials rescued one person and evacuated 11 homes from waist-high mud.

Mud also was on the minds of meteorologists at the National Weather Service station in Hanford. They carefully monitored rainfall over burn scars from one of the worst Sierra fire seasons in memory, ready to send out warnings.

“Once you burn vegetation, there’s nothing holding the dirt,” said meteorologist Jim Andersen. “But even with that worry, it’s been so dry and so hot for so long that it’s like ‘Hallelujah!’ for the rain.”

By Saturday afternoon in Selma — too late for the Hye Street Grill’s lunch crowd to materialize — the rain stopped. Dark clouds gave way to poster-paint-blue sky.

Veronica Garcia, a 23-year-old field worker who is currently unemployed, pointed out a pale rainbow.

“In church they said rainbows were God’s promise that it would always stop raining,” she said. “But maybe it’s also a promise that the rains will come again?”

diana.marcum@latimes.com

Twitter: @dianamarcum

Times staff writer Eryn Brown in Los Angeles contributed to this report.