riverbed

When Bakersfield's so-called rainy season starts off dry — and this year it has — it's not unusual for local water managers to "bank" more water in Lake Isabella rather than sending the precious liquid into the river channel through Bakersfield.

Is it too early to mention the dreaded D-word?

Maybe.

After five years of drought — Gov. Jerry Brown declared an end to the drought last April — it’s almost unthinkable to imagine we could return to critically dry conditions so soon.

But where the heck is the rain?

OK, first the good news: Winter is still dead ahead, and it's not uncommon to start off with a water deficit in December only to see a deluge in January and February.

Still, cities up and down the San Joaquin Valley are experiencing drier than normal conditions, and Bakersfield has seen next to nothing, rain-wise.

Fresno stands at about 17 percent of its year-to-date normal of a little over 2 inches. Madera is at 13 percent. Farther north looks a little better, with Merced charting close to 44 percent of its year-to-date average.

But Bakersfield has received just 0.03 of an inch of rain since the season began in October, leaving the city with less than 2 percent of its normal rainfall for this time of year.

Should we care?

"'Care' may be the wrong word, but maybe we should be concerned," said Florn Core, who spent years as Bakersfield's water resources director before retiring in 2009.

"It's not uncommon to have zero precip in December, and even zero precip in January, and still have a normal water year," he said. "But it still puts you on pins and needles."

Dan Harty, a meteorologist at the National Weather Service's Hanford Station, said December could be a bust, water wise, with no major storm activity forecast for the next seven to 10 days.

But he agreed that it's just too early to worry that the sky is falling (we wish!). One or two huge storms can make up for a lot of arid days.

The U.S. Drought Monitor says about one-third of California is either facing moderate drought conditions or is abnormally dry. It should come as no surprise that the driest patches are more plentiful the farther south you go. It's no coincidence that California's destructive wildfire season has been one of the worst on record. It's made possible by lack of rainfall.

Ironically, water managers in the valley don't care a whole lot about local rainfall levels. What counts is snowpack in the mountains. That's where the valley's water riches are found.

"Rainfall in Bakersfield is kind of an indication of your water supply, but it's not your water supply," Core said. "Water in Bakersfield is kind of a waste. It doesn't really do anything, from a water supply standpoint."

Sure, it can provide some minimal recharge to the area's groundwater.

"The real water is in the form of snow and ice in the hills," Core said.

Unfortunately, the Sierra Nevada snowpack is just 37 percent of normal. And no one at the weather service is unpacking their snow shoes.

The website for Alta Sierra Ski Resort in the Greenhorn Mountains northeast of Bakersfield is not encouraging either:

"WE ARE CLOSED DUE TO LACK OF SNOW!" the website blares. "We are hoping for a big storm so we can re-open. Stay tuned!"

Steven Mayer can be reached at 661-395-7353. Follow him on Facebook and on Twitter: @semayerTBC.

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