SACRAMENTO – Rain fell again Tuesday in parts of Northern California, but officials said the forecast contained promising news for the water-logged San Joaquin Valley: The latest storm was expected to hit farther north, slightly lessening the danger of widespread levee breaks.
"We've very fortunate that this current storm system is going to deliver its precipitation north of there," said Rob Hartman of the National Weather Service's California-Nevada River Forecast Center in Sacramento.
During a briefing Tuesday, state and federal officials warned that the region remains at risk.
"This is an evolving situation," said John Juskie, a National Weather Service meteorologist in Sacramento.
Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger on Monday declared a state of emergency in seven counties that have been battered by storms and flooding. Earlier predictions for the region were dire, after forecasters said a storm expected to hit as early as Tuesday night could inundate the central part of the state, which is crisscrossed with fragile levees.
"There's great vulnerability in the San Joaquin Valley and the Central Valley," Schwarzenegger said after touring the state's flood operations center. "We want to do everything we can to make sure that we don't have a levee break."
The counties are Amador, Calaveras, Fresno, Merced, San Joaquin, San Mateo and Stanislaus. The governor wrote in his declaration that "extreme peril to the safety of persons and property" jeopardized those regions following the rainiest March on record and an unusually wet start to April.
Department of Water Resources Deputy Director Les Harder said that "one of the top-five weather seasons on record" has put California on the precipice of disaster.
"All of our reservoirs are full and we are not able to contain all the water," Harder told the governor during the tour. "So the river system, and the levee system, is being taxed beyond its designed capacity."
The declaration effectively means the counties need state help to recover. It does not set out specific actions or dollar figures on aid, but directs "all agencies of the state" to make available their staff, equipment and facilities.
The step will accelerate the flow of state dollars to local and county response agencies that have been straining to cope with the flooding and storms, said Eric Lamoureux, spokesman for the California Office of Emergency Services.
The series of storms has triggered scattered levee breaks, washed out roads and forced hundreds of residents from their homes.
The record-setting spring rains followed an already wet winter: Schwarzenegger declared states of emergency in 34 counties in January. In February, he declared another state of emergency covering the state's fragile levee system, and asked President Bush for a federal disaster declaration on that infrastructure. Bush has not yet responded.
The threat of breaks "just reminds us again how sensitive and how vulnerable our levees really are, that any little thing now can really create a huge break in our levees," Schwarzenegger told reporters. "We are now almost at the levels of 1997, when we had a huge disaster here."
Meteorologists are predicting another week of rain in the Central Valley, and flood-control authorities were warily watching the farming community of Vernalis, on the banks of the San Joaquin River. The community is a prime location for flooding because of heavy runoff from the Sierra Nevada and the likelihood of more rain.
Firebaugh in Fresno County is also in danger of being flooded, Harder said.
A weekend break in the weather allowed officials a chance to shore up levees and other water-control sites at risk of failing.