Fresno Bee Newsroom Blog

State resources leader told people in small towns need help during drought

When John Laird, secretary for the California Natural Resources Agency, comes to Fresno these days, people want to talk with him about water.  Specifically, the lack of it.

Community Food Bank provided food for Mendota in 2009.

He met this week with the Latino Water Coalition to chat about the Bay Delta Conservation Plan — the one with the twin tunnels — the final draft of which will hit the streets Dec. 13.

The plan looks decades ahead to cure California’s water and ecosystem problems. It involves billions of dollars and construction of two tunnels to avoid pumping water directly from the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta.

But the Latino Water Coalition seemed just as interested in the short term, meaning next year. What if there is a dry winter? People in small west San Joaquin Valley towns could suffer as they did in a dry 2009, members said.

In west-side cities with high unemployment, food lines are not unusual. But the lines were much longer in 2009. The coalition said nobody in state government prepared for the problem.

Said Gary Serrato, general manager of the Fresno Irrigation District, “We should be preparing now to help Mendota and Firebaugh next year in case we have a dry winter.”

Laird said he would take the message back to Sacramento. He said both long- and short-term issues need to be addressed.

Meanwhile, farmers, water districts, cities and industries are worried in Central California. Not a drop of November rain has hit the rain gauge in Fresno yet.

“We will wind up idling close to 50% of our land next year if it continues to be dry,” said west-side farmer Joel Del Bosque.

Fresno nearing driest calendar year on record?

How dry is it in Fresno this year? The National Weather Service in Hanford shows the city has 2.32 inches of rainfall since Jan. 1.

It’s possible this could be the driest calendar year on record. I scanned the list dating back to 1878 and found 1917 with 3.91 inches. That’s the lowest one I saw.

The average for November is .64 of an inch. So far, Fresno is still at zero. The average for December is 1.02 inches.

Fight for west-side water on display this week

West San Joaquin Valley water battles are leaping onto the big screen and into the sports world this week — both under the heading of “The fight for water.”

On Thursday, Olympic boxer Jose Ramirez, who is from the west-side community of Avenal, will talk about his first professional fight in the Valley, on Nov. 9 at West Hills College in Lemoore.

He is expected to say he wants it to make a statement about the hardship of west-side farm water shortages, calling it “The fight for water.” His news conference is scheduled at noon Thursday in the Sierra Athletic Club.

On Saturday, an award-winning documentary, “The fight for water: a farm worker struggle,” will screen at 6 p.m. at the Tower Theatre in Fresno.

The film, produced by Juan Carlos Oseguera, features a 2009 water march by growers and farm workers.  The Latino Water Coalition is a central player in the march.

Fresno State study warns of climate effects on San Joaquin River

Two Fresno State professors say climate change will make the San Joaquin River’s annual runoff show up earlier — as much as six weeks earlier in the next century.

And one other thing:There will be a “significant decrease in annual stream flow,” said geology professor C. John Suen, who co-authored a study on the upper San Joaquin. Suen’s co-author was associate hydrology professor Zhi Wang.

The study, published in Hydrology Research, is more confirmation of findings in previous climate change studies, and it is not a pretty picture.

As water engineers and researchers have been saying for years, California’s reservoirs are built built to capture a gradual runoff from melting snow. More than half the state’s summer water supply is frozen in the snowpack each year.

If the state see more rainfall and earlier snow runoff, there could be big problems protecting communities and farms from floods.

In the San Joaquin Valley, the shift could be damaging for the multibillion-dollar economic base of agriculture.

This is about the place where the discussion turns to building larger reservoirs — such as Temperance Flat on the San Joaquin — or changing the way water and land are used. I’ll leave those issues to commenters here.

But Suen and Wang give us more reason to have the conversation.

Extra water for Westlands actually more than twice cost reported

Westlands Water District farmers will buy some precious river water from Oakdale Irrigation District in Stanislaus County at $128 per acre-foot, a recent news story reported.

But that’s not what Westlands farmers will pay, says a local water engineer. That’s how much Oakdale Irrigation will get.

The bill for Westlands farmers will be more like $350 to $375 per acre-foot. There are a number of additional costs to get the water to Westlands through the vast canal system in California.

But that’s a cost of doing business this dry year. Farmers are in the grip of a second consecutive dry year and suffering water cutbacks for threatened fish species . Westlands will get only 20% of its contractual allotment from the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation.

What would farmers pay for the contractual water? It’s $48.50 per acre-foot. But with additional delivery costs and fees, farmers pay closer to $129.

Clearly, they are forced to pay much bigger prices in a year like this.

In the Oakdale Irrigation District deal, Westlands will buy 40,000 acre-feet of Stanislaus River water if it’s available. At $350 per acre-foot, farmers would spend $14 million.

That won’t come close to covering the shortfall in Westlands, where the contractual allotment is more than 1.1 million acre-feet annually.

For those who were curious, one acre-foot of water is about 326,000 gallons of water, enough for an average Valley family for 12 to 18 months.

2012-2013 wet season might be among Fresno’s 10 driest

Rainfall in Fresno for January through April? It was a kidney stone of a four-month period. It ranks as the sixth-driest on record, according to the National Weather Service in Hanford.

It’s a relief that those four months have just about passed, but we have more than just a dry spell here. If there’s little or no rainfall between now and the end of June, this will go down as one of the 10 driest years on record for Fresno.

Those records date back to 1878.

I’ve talked with a few meteorologists who say California is in a drought, though the state has not declared one.

Paul Iniguez of the National Weather Service says: “As a meteorologist, I will say that large areas of the state are experiencing meteorological drought.”

 The state had a dry year in 2011-2012. It looks like 2012-2013 — water year runs from July 1 through June 20 — will be even drier.

Fresno is a good example. It had 8.15 inches of rain last year, about 75% of average. This year, the city has 5.60 inches, about 52% of average for late April.

The snowpack was a bit of a disaster as well. It was 48% of average on April 1. The year before, it was 54% of average.

With reservoirs still close to average — with the notable exception of San Luis Reservoir in western Merced County — the impact of consecutive dry years could be much worse.

But water managers throughout California already are worrying about next winter.

Yosemite will begin Tioga assessment Monday

It’s balmy in the San Joaquin Valley, but it’s still winter above 8,000 feet in the Sierra. Yosemite National Park on Monday will begin to assess the snow covering high country Tioga Road in preparation for plowing.

Each spring, the reopening of this road is anxiously awaited by businesses on both sides of the mountain, as well as many thousands of tourists.

In many years, it is open by Memorial Day, but not always. The earliest the road has opened in the last few decades has been April 29 in 1988, which was a drought year in California.

Will the road be open before that date? Nobody knows, says park spokeswoman Kari Cobb. She says crews on snowmobiles will take a couple of days to assess avalanche danger and snow conditions. Then park leaders will decide when the plowing begins.

By all accounts, it was a dry winter in the Sierra, but some places had more snow than others. The watershed for Yosemite’s two main rivers — the Tuolumne and the Merced — got a little more than half the usual snowfall. But the snowpack above 8,000 feet is 70% of average.

“There’s a lot of interest in the reopening,” Cobb said. “We will get updates on our web site as often as possible.”

The California Department of Transportation has cleared the road above the east-side community of Lee Vining all the way to the Tioga Pass entrance station, she said.