Rain, Man

awileman@sierrastar.comFebruary 4, 2014 

Madera County saw its first sign of much needed rain last weekend when mother nature dropped more than .41-inches throughout the county and more than 2.2-inches in Bass Lake, following a 54-day dry spell during what is normally one of the county's wettest months. The rain could not have come at a more crucial time for businesses' and companies who are witnessing one of the worst droughts in recorded history.

According to Weather Base reports, San Joaquin Valley averages more than 40 inches of rainfall annually with most of that coming in December, January and February. For the first time in as long as many can remember, and since record keeping began, Madera County and California as a whole have never experienced this dry of a January.

The San Joaquin precipitation average maintained 40-inches annually from 1955 to 2006. This stretch included the second driest year ever recorded (1976-77) where the Valley averaged only 15.4-inches of rain, only half an inch higher than the driest year ever recorded (14.8-inches in 1923-24). The same 50 year stretch also documented the wettest years in recorded history (1982-83) where the Valley received a monstrous average of 77-inches of rain.

To give an idea of how dry this season has been so far, the driest first quarter — October through January — ever recorded (1923-24) showed an average of 3.2 inches of rain in the San Joaquin Valley, this year's first quarter is currently averaging an unprecedented 3 inches.

The Southern Sierras are currently at 12% of the April 1, average with normal averages being around 21% by this time of the year.

However, despite low rainfall numbers and what most news sources are reporting about the drought, President of Bass Lake Water Company, Steve Welch, says the water levels are only slightly below normal for this time of year.

The California Department of Public Health recently reported Bass Lake as one of 17 community in jeopardy of running out of water, a statement Welch claims is completely inaccurate and has since Welch has asked to be removed from the list.

"We do not have such a shortage and don't anticipate a shortage...we have historically not run out of water because of our access to Willow Creek, the main tributary to Bass Lake where we get our water," Welch said. "It has not gone dry in recorded history and although we know we are in some unprecedented times right now we do not foresee it being a major issue."

Welch says Bass Lake water levels are only slightly lower than previous years and does not believe there is reason to be alarmed.

"It's (Bass Lake) very close to normal, right now it is currently down 23 feet from full and during normal winters it is down 21.5 feet," Welch said.

Welch went on to say it is nearly impossible to predict the outcome of the summer months prior to the end of spring.

But for those who live in the Mountain Area, aside from drinking water, the lack of rainfall presents possible obstacles and could potentially and immediately put the livelihood of many area citizens in danger.

From fire fighters potentially fighting larger and more expansive fires, to businesses' losing revenue due to a lack of winter time visitors, there can be a cause for concern about the lack of rainfall this year for certain area professionals.

The Mountain Area just made it through a tough fire season as citizens were in awe of last year's Rim Fire — the third largest fire California has ever documented. Now fire stations are preparing for the upcoming year and must continue to monitor rainfall.

"The trees will be fighting for ground water this year and if we don't get more rainfall they have the potential to die off and then create more fuel for fires," said Fire Prevention Specialist Karen Guillemin. "In spring time these trees and brush will be looking for more water in the ground and that's when we will have a better idea of what is in store for this upcoming season."

Guillemin said there was talk of bringing back seasonal workers earlier this year, but recent rain gave a bit of a break for County and State wide fire departments.

Executive Director of the Oakhurst Chamber of Commerce, Darin Soukup, said their main concern over the drought coincides with the upcoming fire season, and warns people to be cautious and prepared during the upcoming spring and summer months.

"There are two immediate concerns for the Eastern Madera County region if the drought continues with below average precipitation through 2014. The first is the increased fire danger and safety of our local residents," Soukup said. "We encourage our local residents to be vigilant in protecting their property and being prepared for any emergency."

Businesses' in the area who rely heavily on Bass Lake and water related activities could also suffer major backlash, losing large portions of their yearly revenues, and in some cases could potentially be forced to close their doors if the area does not receive more rain in the coming months.

"The second concern is how a perception of a continued drought would affect our peak visitation season," Soukup said.

Currently Yosemite's closest ski resort, Badger Pass, normally opened by mid-December, has not seen enough snow this year to open its runs.

Meanwhile residents in the Eastern part of the country deal with treacherous black ice, dangerous highways, business and school shutdowns, multi-vehicle and semi pile-ups, "drowning" under all the rain and snowfall. Here, it is just the opposite. It is becoming more and more commonplace to overhear the phrase, "send some our way — please."

"We were certainly optimistic going into January, and were looking forward to beating last year's numbers, which were also impacted by the drought," Tenaya General Manager Paul Ratchford said. "We believed with the right weather, with the right snowfall, we would have a good first quarter. Now, we've gone from being somewhat optimistic to having to manage in case the drought continues."

According to Ratchford, in January, Tenaya lost several hundred room nights, and they are down 7% from what they were last January.

"We're fortunate that we have a mix of business, so having good strong groups and conferences have helped with the loss of our leisure customers."

A positive aspect of the drought — if there is any — is that dry conditions make for good road access to Yosemite and the higher elevations.

"Clearly, we wish Badger Pass was open, that we had snow play open — not having Badger open has probably hurt us. Hopefully, we'll get enough snow fall soon so that changes," Ratchford continued.

"There's still a lot to see here without snow on the ground. Our ice skating rink is open seven days a week, with three sessions a day, and we offer biking and hiking."

Yosemite National Park spokesman, Scott Gediman, also sees some positives, despite the dry conditions.

"Because of the drought, the traditional winter sports are not happening right now, especially with Badger Pass not open due to lack of snow," Gediman said. "On the other hand, the roads are clear, no-chain restrictions, bike rentals are available, and there's access to hiking trails in Yosemite Valley, which would normally be covered with snow."

"So business is pretty good right now," Gediman continued. "The park is beautiful. There's water in the falls. The Visitors Center is open. Operationally, everything is the same. January and February are typically slower times of the year for us, anyway, but in general, we're busier over the weekends than on a typical winter day when there is snow in the park."

Many people believe this to be one of the first drought years the Central Valley has experienced, but in fact this is the third year in a row California, and more specifically the Central Valley, has experienced sub-normal precipitation levels.

The seriousness of the drought was evident a few weeks ago when Governor Jerry Brown announced a state of emergency and the U.S. Department of Agriculture declared more than 10 counties a natural disaster area. Both facets have urged Californian's to conserve water by any means possible.

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