Local News

Wednesday, Feb 26 2014 06:27 PM

Rain storms welcome, but too little too late

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    By Henry A. Barrios / The Californian

    Garces soccer fans stay dry as a light rain falls during Garces' playoff game against Edison Wednesday night.

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    By AP Photo/Gary Kazanjian

    Fidel Meza walks through a dry tomato field as storms arrive in the area Wednesday, Feb. 26, 2014 in Lemoore, Calif. The first significant California storm in months barreled down from the north Wednesday, promising much-needed rain to the drought-stricken state but also the threat of mudslides and flooding. A potentially stronger storm is expected to move in late Thursday.

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    By AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez

    A farmworker picks broccolini in the rain on Wednesday, Feb. 26, 2014, in King City, Calif. A potentially stronger storm is expected to move in late Thursday, bringing much needed rain in central and southern valleys and snow to the mountains in the drought-stricken state.

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    By AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli

    Pedestrians carry umbrellas in Sacramento, Calif., Wednesday, Feb. 26, 2014. A potentially stronger storm is expected to move in late Thursday bringing much needed rain in central and southern valleys and snow to the mountains in the drought-stricken state.

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BY STEVEN MAYER Californian staff writer smayer@bakersfield.com

It's raining, Bakersfield. Or it's about to. Have you turned off your automatic sprinklers?

The valleys and mountains of Kern County appeared to be in for some real weather overnight Wednesday, and again on Friday and Saturday.

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WATER STATS

-- Since July 1, Bakersfield has received just 1.24 inches of rain. Normally by Feb. 26, the city would have seen 4.39 inches of precipitation.

--The Sierra Nevada snowpack is pitiful, just 22 percent of average for this time of year. But that could improve this weekend.

-- Isabella Lake is at 10 percent of capacity. The lake level would normally stand at 32 percent of capacity this time of year.

-- Bright spot: The aquifer below Bakersfield has roughly 1.7 million acre-feet of "banked" water. That is equal to three Isabella Lakes at capacity.

Sources: Kern County Water Agency; California snow surveys; The Californian; the National Weather Service

By mid-morning Wednesday, Bakersfield's Meadows Field Airport had received just 1/100th of an inch -- but significantly more precipitation is expected, said Gary Sanger, a meteorologist for the National Weather Service in Hanford.

"The main rain band arrives overnight tonight," he said Wednesday afternoon. "The south valley should see 1/10th- to 1/4-inch of rain, with snow above 5,500 to 6,000 feet."

After a lull on Thursday, even larger amounts of rain are predicted for Friday and Saturday, as much as a half-inch, with up to 8 inches of snow in the higher elevations, Sanger said.

In a news release late Wednesday afternoon, the weather service was even more generous with its predictions, forecasting 1 to 2 inches total rainfall in the valley, with locally higher amounts in the foothills.

Expect lower snow levels to arrive late Friday, with a mix of rain and snow possible at pass level in Kern County on Friday night and Saturday, the NWS said. Street flooding could also develop in urban areas, especially on Friday and Saturday.

The combined storms are expected to bring several feet of new snow to the higher elevations of the Southern Sierra. Mountain travel could become treacherous and cause travel delays and closures.

The storms could also generate high winds on the Grapevine and in the southern end of the valley Friday and into Saturday. Wind gusts near the foot of the Grapevine could reach 55 mph, while winds through Tejon Pass could be even more hazardous, with gusts as high as 70 mph.

These strong winds could make travel challenging and cause isolated property damage, the weather service said.

This long-awaited series of storms is expected to drop significant amounts of welcome rain -- and snow at higher elevations -- throughout much of California.

But don't even think about celebrating the end of the drought, water managers caution. California is in a water deficit so deep, it would require catastrophic flood conditions throughout March just to break even this year.

"We're seeing a drought none of us has ever experienced," said Jim Beck, general manager for the Kern County Water Agency, which contracts with the state to provide water for municipal, industrial and agricultural use.

"Any relief is welcome," Beck said of the coming storms. "But this drought is going to be here all this year."

The saving grace for urban and some agricultural water users has long been the natural aquifer below Bakersfield that allows water managers to store water in wet years for use in dry years.

Last year, in rough numbers, the aquifer held 2 million acre-feet of water, Beck said. After a year of pumping -- and virtually no water added to recharge the supply -- the aquifer is down to approximately 1.7 million acre-feet, equal to three full Isabella Lakes.

Harry Starkey, general manager of West Kern Water District, which includes a huge geographic area encompassing Taft, Maricopa and McKittrick, is closely watching this series of storms.

And while he'd love to see Kern County get drenched, much of his attention is drawn to the Feather River watershed above Lake Oroville.

It may seem counterintuitive, but what happens weather-wise in Northern California matters much to the southern valley, because, historically, a significant portion of Kern's water is transported from the north.

Virtually all of West Kern's supply comes from the State Water Project, delivered via the California Aqueduct. But deliveries from the State Water Project have been cut to zero this year. Fortunately, the district has several years' backup stored in the aquifer to the east.

Starkey said as much as 4 inches of rain in the lower elevations, and 2 feet to 3 feet of snow in the higher elevations, are expected above Oroville Dam -- and that's good news.

But it's been "so historically dry," Starkey said, that his expectations have fallen into a range that must necessarily reflect the stark reality.

"Even a Miracle March would have to be 600 percent of normal," he said, to reach normal precipitation for the year.

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