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Abundant rain = good irrigation season
don pedro
In a three-week period from the end of December into the first part of January, Don Pedro Reservoir rose more than 50 feet to 787.6 feet (801.9 feet is the maximum elevation allowed by the Army Corps of Engineers in the winter for flood control purposes). Don Pedro’s maximum capacity is 830 feet. - photo by Photo courtesy of TID

Since the last storm system moved through the region, there’s one question on most everybody’s mind: “Is the drought over?”

Of course, the answer to that can vary, depending on who you ask. And regardless of the answer, you shouldn’t go back to 20-minute showers and watering your lawn every day. But if you’re asking the folks at Turlock Irrigation District, then, yeah, the drought is pretty much over.

Here’s why.

In normal, non-drought conditions, TID provides farmers 48 inches of water for irrigation. During this latest dry period, which followed an incredibly wet 2017, TID was forced to reduce the allotment to its customers from 48 to 42 inches in 2020, then down to 34 inches in 2021, and then just 27 inches of water in 2022.

But this year will be different.

“TID always defines drought a little bit different than the state does, and any year that we can’t provide our customers 48 inches, we are considered to be in drought management conditions,” said Olivia Cramer, a TID hydrologist. «I can’t speak for other California agencies and departments, but for Turlock Irrigation District, we are now out of an operational drought.”

Through Jan. 20, Turlock has received 14.65 inches of precipitation this water year, which won’t end until Sept. 30, according to Ryan Hollister, an earth sciences professor at Stanislaus State and Modesto Junior College.

“That’s the most in any of my 11 years of keeping records,” said Hollister, who operates a rain gauge at his home in east Turlock. “Compared to official Turlock records, we’re at 252 percent of average for the date and 115 percent of our annual precipitation.”

In other words, we’re way over our normal yearly total … with more than eight months remaining in the water year.

As for the Tuolumne River Watershed, the numbers are also impressive.

The 1,500 square miles above Don Pedro Reservoir has a year-to-date total of 37.63 inches of precipitation. 

“Our typical year-to-date total is 16.47 inches,” said Cramer, a Turlock native who studied hydrologic science and policy at UC Santa Barbara.

“And from this date to the end of the precipitation year, we usually get about 20 more inches.”

That would put precipitation totals in the watershed at nearly 60 inches, on par with 2017, when it received 63 inches.

2017, you may remember, was an epically wet year. It was followed by an average 2018 and a slightly above average 2019. 

Then things got bad.

“2020 to 2022 was the third driest three-year period on record for the watershed,” added Cramer, noting that those records date back to 1930.

Getting back to that other frequently asked question (“Are we done with the rain?”) … we’re probably not done.

“We’ve got a little break from the all the wet stuff,” said Cramer. “But we’re getting in-and-out signals that we may be in store for something around the first week of February.”

That’s something on which TID is keeping a close watch.

On Dec. 27, Don Pedro was at 736.36 feet above sea level. In about three weeks, it rose more than 50 feet to 787.6 feet (801.9 feet is the maximum elevation allowed by the Army Corps of Engineers in the winter for flood control purposes). Don Pedro’s maximum capacity is 830 feet.

Farmers also are interested in future weather reports. While the recent rains were welcomed by nervous growers, too much of a good thing can be bad.

“The precipitation is great, everybody loves that,” said James Peterson, who farms close to 1,000 almond trees on 10 acres near his home. “This time of year, it doesn’t hurt anything. In farming, timing is everything. Rain at the wrong time is not a good thing. And too much rain can be bad. It can flood the root system and the tree essentially drowns. That’s the danger.”

But for now, local farmers seem to be in good shape.

“When you see an orchard that is completely under water for several days, that can easily be a death sentence for that orchard,” said Peterson. “But I haven’t seen that a lot around here. I think we’re in good shape. It should be a good year.”