Monday, April 1, 2013

How Dry We Are: That’s Worrisome for Local Farmers

We all know it has been dry since New Year’s Day.

So it wasn’t surprising to hear that 1 ½ weeks ago the federal Bureau of Reclamation cut the H2o allocation for agricultural water suppliers in our region to 20 percent, down from 25 percent projected in February.
State Water surveyors  found  a melting Sierra snowpack.
- Department of Water Resources photo
 And it wasn’t surprising to hear last Thursday that the State Water Resources offered similar gloomy news: Its allocation for the State Water Project is being cut from 40 to 35 percent to water agencies, including those that supply water to nearly 1 million acres of irrigated farm land. Surveyors last week measured the Sierra snowpack and reported it was just 52 percent of normal. At the same time, they reported the spring melt is well underway.

Both cite the skimpy rainfall this year and winter pumping restrictions to protect the Delta smelt and salmon for the decreased water allocation estimates.

As baseball legend Yogi Berra says, “It’s déjà vu all over again.” Yes, farmers have been here before.

You don’t need to be a meteorologist and snow surveyor with fancy degrees to figure it out. It was just spring-like this winter. In fact, the Valley recorded only about 2 inches of rain for all of January, February and March, according the National Weather Service. That’s a third of normal.
Federal water folks say March was “tracking to be the driest on record.” 
So what does this mean?

A dry March had some Central Valley  growers  turning
 on the irrigation sprinklers in their  almond orchards.
The Westlands Water District, which serves a lot of farms in our area, says the low allocation could prove economically devastating to local communities and cost them more than $1 billion in economic activity.

“The water supply reductions facing farmers will devastate the local communities,” says Thomas Birmingham, Westlands general manager.

For now, no one is ready to mention the dreaded “D” word, as in drought.

Westlands and other water districts have about 400,000 acre feet of water stored in San Luis Reservoir, which holds water for south-of-the-delta water projects. “Reservoir storage will meet much of the state’s water demand this year,” government water officials say. But they warn that “successively dry years would create drought conditions in some areas.”

Farmers could see this coming and planned accordingly for this year’s growing season. In cotton, for example, some growers are opting to plant other crops or cut back on their plantings. We wouldn’t be surprised to see a drop in cotton acreage this season, which would reverse three years of increased plantings since end of the prolonged California drought in 2009.

Of course, the water outlook could change if we get plenty of April showers. We certainly could use more rain like Sunday, when we closed out March with nearly a third of inch of rain and almost doubled the total recorded the previous 30 days. Weather watchers are predicting another storm Thursday, but clear skies the rest of the week. We’ll see how everything plays out for almond and alfalfa crops as well as the cotton plantings.

Another storm may arrive later this week.
Because of the recent rain, alfalfa growers could hold off on their first cutting of the season. Meanwhile, on the pest front, our sweep nets are snagging aphids in some alfalfa fields but not enough to worry about at the moment. Growers, though, should continue to keep an eye out for them. Alfalfa weevils are under control right now.

Cotton growers are still tracking the degree days to determine the best time to plant. But growers tell us they’re in no rush. They don’t want to plant too early and risk late spring rains and damage to the seedlings. It’s no time to get over eager.

In the almond orchards, we’re still seeing some white bloom, but petal fall is definitely taking place. Westside orchards are seeing lots of green leaves. That’s not surprising. We usually see these orchards develop faster than other areas in the San Joaquin Valley. Bees are definitely active everywhere. One grower had the sprinklers going in his orchard thanks to the dry weather.

Well, it’s only April 1. There is still of time to do a little rain dance and get the clouds to shower us with more rainfall.

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