Dry season threatens farmers, return of salmon to San Joaquin River

The Fresno BeeJanuary 6, 2012 

Even though the wetter half of California's winter is still ahead, it's hard to ignore the historic dry spell taking shape.

The statewide snowpack is 15% of average for early January. This winter is mirroring the terrible 1976-1977 season -- the driest time on record.

"I never recall a year when there were zero storms for this length of time," said Randy McFarland, local historian and spokesman for many water districts. "I have the sense we're seeing history in the making."

A history-making dry year could mean no water releases this summer from Millerton Lake for the restoration of the San Joaquin. All eyes will be on the river in late December when officials are scheduled to reintroduce long-dead salmon runs.

A record-setting dry year also would mean less water from the San Joaquin and Kings rivers for farmers. Cities may have to move swiftly to water-conservation programs. Hydroelectric production would be cut short. And Sierra forests would become tinder dry and ripe for a catastrophic fire.

California is getting weather whiplash from La Niña, a cool-water trend in the Pacific Ocean. Last year, it helped to send the state near-record snow and rain. Now, it is drying up cities and decimating the snowpack, which provides up to two-thirds of the state's water.

Meteorologists do not offer much hope for the next week. Pacific storms are blocked from California by a high-pressure system that bounces wet weather into Oregon and Washington. The Pacific Northwest got a month's worth of rain and snow in the last four days of December.

Wet weather could still return, said state climatologist Mike Anderson. There have been monster February and March storms that rescued the state from dry years in the past.

In any event, the state has a lot of leftover water in reservoirs from last year, he said.

But unlike massive Northern California reservoirs, which help serve west-side farmers, Millerton Lake on the San Joaquin River does not hold very much water. It needs a steady flow of water from the melting snowpack to supply irrigation to east-side farmers.

Since 2009, the snowpack also has supported the hard-fought San Joaquin restoration, which reconnected dried stretches of the river with the ocean. The river dried up, and salmon runs died after Friant Dam was built in the 1940s.

Federal officials say they plan to evaluate the situation as the year progresses and decide later whether a record dry year would delay the reintroduction of salmon in late December.

Chowchilla-area farmer Kole Upton, who helped negotiate the restoration agreement in 2006, says the idea of salmon restoration here is unrealistic anyway. This year is a good example of the challenge.

Salmon need too much cold water, which might be in short supply during years such as this, he says.

"There are many species of fish -- why pick the fish with the need for the most cold water?" he asked.

But salmon survived dry times on the San Joaquin before Friant Dam was built, said Alicia Forsythe, restoration project manager for the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation. A very dry year might have temporarily stopped the migrating fish decades ago, but salmon made comebacks in wetter years.

"The fish have developed under these conditions of dry years and wet years," she said. "They are very resilient."

Dry and wet seasons were anticipated in the restoration agreement. The document lists six different types of water year, ranging from wet to critically low.

In the critically low years, officials wouldn't make restoration water releases from Millerton Lake after March 1, Forsythe said. In less-severe dry seasons, water releases would be trimmed back for the restoration, as it is for farmers and other water customers.

The Bureau of Reclamation will announce in late February the type of water year it expects. That key announcement is based on the size of the snowpack.

The snowpack above the San Joaquin River, east of Fresno, is only 9% of average for April 1, according to the state Department of Water Resources. And that percentage drops each day without storms.

The big storms last winter helped the underground water table recover from previous dry years, water officials say. But farmers would rather not use a lot of groundwater this year and possibly face another dry season next year. They are praying for rain.

"We're going to need some real gullywashers," said local historian McFarland. "We've gotten big storms before in February and March, so this season could change very quickly. All we can do is hope right now."

The reporter can be reached at mgrossi@fresnobee.com or (559) 441-6316.

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