California drought: With big rains coming, calls to soak up every drop

Two storms hitting California in the coming days should bring more rain than fell in the last eight months, but still not enough to dent the overall drought, meteorologists say.

Nick Ut/AP
Mark and Barbara Albanese fill sand bags to protect their home from the possible flooding ahead of an expected rain storm in Azusa, Calif. on Feb 25.

Not one but two major rainstorms are expected to hit this drought-parched state beginning Wednesday night – dumping more water than fell in the last 8 months combined. But it won’t dent the overall drought, researchers hasten to add.

The first storm could bring a quarter inch of rain and the second, arriving Friday, is expected to douse the coast and valleys with 1 to 2 inches of rain, and deposit as much as four inches in the mountains.

For perspective, the state has received just 1.2 inches since last July while the average is 10.45 inches by this date each year.

“The combination of the two storms have the potential to bring the biggest rains to Southern California since March of 2011,” says Marc Mancuso, senior meteorologist at in a statement. And meteorologist Jordan Root, adds: “Folks who may be disappointed by rain totals from the first event should not worry.”

But that is not enough solace for Los Banos farmer Joe Del Bosque, who has farmed in the San Joaquin Valley his entire life. He is fallowing 200 of his 2,000 acres – putting 100 seasonal harvesters out of work – and worrying about whether his 1,200 acres of almond trees might not survive at all.

“There’s too many people ahead of me that will get this water,” says Mr. Del Bosque, noting that livestock ranchers higher on the state's priority list have herds with no grass at all. A colleague in the Mendota area is already pulling out 1,000 acres of almond trees, he says, and other farmers are getting no water at all.

Del Bosque says he hopes the storm's water can be captured and stored so that the region doesn’t start out next year with no water. “It will help to start out with some water in the bank,” he says.

Some environmentalists are hoping the back-to-back storms can remind city residents how bad things are for their rural counterparts.

“While every little bit helps, the storms this week will not be enough to bring our rainfall and snowpack up to normal levels.  Our reservoirs are so deep in deficit, that these storms are unlikely to boost delivery allocations to cities and farms from the big state and federal projects,” says Kate Poole, senior water attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council, a New York-based environmental advocacy group. “But at least everyone can turn off their sprinklers and let the yard, parks, and hillsides soak up some moisture – and, hopefully, capture some of it in backyard rain barrels for use down the line.”

The rains will be a selective – if minor – blessing, and could prove more useful if officials do the right thing, says Dave Puglia, senior vice president at the Western Growers Association. “The bigger benefit – potentially – is for the runoff that pulses into the [Bay Area] Delta to be captured for storage before it runs out to sea," he says.

What needs to happen, he says, is for governmental agencies to be primed to maximize the pumping of water from the environmentally sensitive Delta area while the storms’ runoff is at its height, and keep the pumping level as high as possible for as long as possible, something that didn’t happen with the last big storm to pass through.

“While the agencies did ramp up pumping to the max allowable, they took their sweet time getting there and we lost significant water," says Puglia.

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