By Vicky Boyd

With each passing sunny day, the state's snowpack shrinks a bit more and the prognosis for a normal water year grows a little dimmer.

"It's not a good situation," said Dave Simpson, a Lodi area winegrape grower who chairs the San Joaquin Farm Bureau's Water Committee. "We're hoping for another March Miracle. Every day that goes without rain, the odds get worse. They're not completely against us yet – I still have faith that the high pressure will move and we'll get some storms that come through, hopefully not at bloom time."

The one bright spot, Simpson pointed out, is most reservoirs still have above-average storage for this time of year.

The lack of rain and snowfall, along with anticipated reductions in runoff, were top of mind at the late January Water Committee meeting, he said.

"It's got all of us a little bit nervous," Simpson said in mid-February. "Here we are a couple of weeks later, and it hasn't rained a drop and there's no rain in the 10-day forecast."

As of Feb. 15, the 39 automatic electronic reporting stations that monitor snowpack in the central Sierra Nevada found it was only 22 percent of average for the date and contained 5.3 inches of water. Statewide, the band of 99 stations found snowpack was only 20 percent of average for the date and only contained 4.3 inches of snow-water equivalent.

Historically, Sierra snowpack hits its greatest depth and highest water content around April 1, after which it begins to melt.

The San Joaquin Valley floor hasn't been any wetter, with the National Weather Service reporting that as of Feb. 14, Stockton had only received 3.99 inches of rain since Oct. 1. Just a year ago, the city had received 15.53 inches by Feb. 14. In a year with normal rainfall, Stockton would expect to receive 8.77 inches by that date.

During an average water year, which runs Oct. 1 through Sept. 30 of the following year, the city receives 14.06 inches.

Despite the dry conditions, New Melones Reservoir, which stores water for the federal Central Valley Project as well as the South San Joaquin and Oakdale irrigation districts, stands at 1,969,399 acre-feet on Feb. 14. That's 136 percent of average for that date. Last year at the same time, the reservoir held 1,355,638 acre-feet. An acre-foot, or about 325,800 gallons, can meet the annual water needs of one to two families of four, according to Department of Water Resources figures.

Above-average storage in New Hogan Reservoir, which is the main water source for the Stockton East Water District, also should mean full deliveries for the district's farmers this season, said Paul Sanguinetti, a district board member and farmer near Stockton. As of Feb. 14, New Hogan held 158,574 acre-feet or 110 percent of average for that date.

What the Stockton East board doesn't know yet is how much water the district will receive from its junior Central Valley Project water rights in New Melones Reservoir, Sanguinetti said. The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, which operates the CVP, was expected to announce initial allocations Feb. 20.

If the CVP water comes through, Sanguinetti said the district would use that to meet its obligations to the city of Stockton. If the federal water isn't available, then Stockton East would have to use New Hogan water to meet its city of Stockton obligations.

"If we can use Melones water, we can save the water out of Hogan because we don't know what it's going to be like next year," he said.

Water deliveries also were the topic of discussion during the South San Joaquin Irrigation District's Feb. 13 board meeting. It appears the district will be able to make full deliveries this season, although conservation will be encouraged, said spokeswoman Troylene Sayler.

The start date of the irrigation season hasn't been finalized, but she said it likely will begin the week of Feb. 26 and end sometime in September or October, depending on summer weather and remaining water supplies. The early start to the irrigation season, about two weeks ahead of normal, also meant winter maintenance and repairs had to be sped up, she said.

Based on current snowpack, SSJID water managers only expect about 275,000 acre-feet of runoff and inflow into New Melones unless major storms drench the state in March. The average runoff and inflow into New Melones is about 1 million acre-feet.

"So we continue to see low inflow, and there's very little snow to melt at this point in time," Salyer said. "But we do expect to get through the season with no limits."

In addition to irrigation customers, SSJID supplies the cities of Manteca, Lathrop and Tracy with municipal water. Combined, the district delivers about 240,000 acre-feet annually.

The dry conditions haven't gone unnoticed by Mel Machado, director of member relations for Blue Diamond in Salida. Since Christmas, he's been telling almond growers to give their trees at least a few inches of irrigation if they have water available from wells.

"A lot of guys fired up their water in December, which is what I was advocating," he said. Despite some fears that mid-winter irrigation will wake up trees, Machado said a few inches won't break a tree's dormancy and will actually be beneficial.

What had him more concerned than dry conditions in mid-February was the potential for freezing temperatures. "I'd like to see a little rain to increase the humidity a bit and warm it up," Machado said. "Twenty nine degrees would be OK, but I'm scared to death. As we go into bloom, that number moves up to 32 degrees. There's a good chance of frost over the next week. I sweat frost all the way past Easter Sunday."