Valley residents may need to take their “Pray for Rain” signs out of storage soon, as the U.S. Drought Monitor declared last week that some parts of the state have been pushed back into a drought following a significantly dry winter.
According to the latest U.S. Drought Monitor map of California provided by the National Weather Service, 46.15 percent of the state is in a drought or considered “abnormally dry” due to the lack of recent rainfall — conditions which are expected to continue on for at least the next couple of weeks.
The eastern area of Stanislaus County is considered to be abnormally dry according to the map, while parts of Tuolumne, Mariposa, Madera, Merced, Fresno, Tulare, Kings and Kern counties are currently in a moderate drought. California had been drought-free since early December.
According to Turlock Irrigation District Utility Analyst Olivia Cramer, the current water year is the fourth driest in the water agency’s history. As of Feb. 9, the Tuolumne River Watershed had received just .03 inches of precipitation this month, compared to the February average of 6.52. Since the 2019-2020 water year began in September, the watershed has received just 11.66 inches — 55.3 percent of the normal for the date.
“Looking precipitation in February, we’ve had pretty dry conditions,” noted Cramer said.
The Central Sierra snowpack is currently at 58 percent of normal for the date, Cramer added, which is slightly above the most recent drought years’ snowpack during the 2014-2015 water year.
The dry weather in February so far comes following a significantly dry January, which saw just 1.69 inches of precipitation compared to the historical average of 6.52 inches for the month. While December pulled in 7.74 inches of rainfall, exceeding the month’s historical average, less-than-average numbers in September, October and November have taken a toll on the area.
According to TID Water Distribution Department Manager Mike Kavarian, local growers are already calling the water agency wondering when irrigation will begin.
“The water year is not looking as good as we thought it was going to look like,” said Kavarian.
There are two options for the irrigation season when it comes to a dry year, Kavarian said, in order to keep the season capped at 210 to 215 days: skip March applications for irrigation water, thus starting the season later and ending the last week of October, or start the irrigation season in March and end it during the first week of October.
Before and after the irrigation season, growers can utilize their private pumps, he added. The precautions ensure that water levels will remain satisfactory should another dry year occur in 2020-21.
“The pattern is that we see multiple years of wet weather, then multiple years of below normal, then three or four years above 100 percent,” said Kavarian. “We have to anticipate that this potentially is the first year of a drought.”
Though growers are growing concerned due to dry weather, the lack of water means the irrigation season will likely start in April, he said. If it were to start in March and end at the end of October, the irrigation season would last 240 days — well above the 210 to 215-day threshold.
“With the way the water year looks right now, it’s really difficult for someone like me who’s been doing this a number of years to suggest that or to recommend that to the board…We’re doing this because we want to be prudent operators,” Kavarian said. “(Growers) understand…they don’t like it like none of us do, but they do realize they have pumps and can run pumps like they have in the past.”