California Farmers Preparing for Devastating Drought . . . Again
California has been in bad shape, moisturewise, for several years now, with drought slashing the amount of water available to that state's farmers and the crops they grow. Now, 2015 is shaping up to be way worse.
State agriculture officials and other leaders convened this week to discuss the state's water situation after it was announced the snowpack in the Sierra Nevada mountains there is "virtually gone," well ahead of when it normally has melted, an event that typically creates runoff to help feed California's massive water needs for both ag and non-ag uses. The last time the Sierra Nevada snowpack melted this much this early was 65 years ago (some spots are already completely devoid of snow, the first time that's ever happened since officials started taking snowpack measurements in the state's mountains). The result this time around: The state has 5% of its historic average water supply heading into the summer growing season.
"The California Department of Water Resources (DWR) found no snow whatsoever today during its manual survey for the media at 6,800 feet in the Sierra Nevada. This was the first time in 75 years of early-April measurements at the Phillips snow course that no snow was found there," according to a report released this week by California Department of Water Resources information officer Doug Carlson. "Today's readings are historically significant, since the snowpack traditionally is at its peak by early April before it begins to melt. Electronic readings today found that the statewide snowpack holds only 1.4 inches of water content, just 5% of the historical average of 28.3 inches for April 1. The previous low for the date was 25% in 2014 and 1977."
Graphic courtesy California Department of Water Resources
These conditions prompted California Governor Jerry Brown to this week reaffirm his commitment to his proclamation from about 11 months ago calling on California residents to sharply reduce water usage through a number of means:
Overall reduction of "potable urban water usage" by 25% by next February.
Replacing up to 50 million square feet of green lawn space with "drought-tolerant landscapes" with funding assistance from the state's department of water resources.
New incentives from the California Energy Commission and Department of Water Resources to update older household appliances with those that use water more efficiently.
A call on "commercial, industrial properties such as campuses, golf courses, and cemeteries" to "immediately implement water efficiency measures to reduce potable water usage."
A ban on irrigation of "ornamental turf on public street medians" and irrigation for land around newly built homes that "is not delivered by drip or microspray systems."
The establishment of rate structures by water suppliers to "maximize water conservation consistent with statewide water restrictions."
Though many of these don't affect crop production directly, there are provisions in Brown's executive order touching the state's large farms, those that use a considerable amount of the state's water for agriculture. On farms with more than 10,000 acres, operators and/or owners must provide a detailed plan outlining water use plans accounting for cuts mandated statewide. And, if those farmers need help implementing efficiency mechanisms or procedures, state funding will be available, Brown says.
"The California Energy Commission, jointly with the Department of Water Resources and Water Board, shall implement a Water Energy Technology (WET) program to deploy innovative water management technologies for businesses, residents, industries and agriculture," according to Brown's executive order. "This program will achieve water and energy savings and greenhouse gas reductions by accelerating use of cutting-edge technologies such as renewable energy-powered desalination, integrated onsite reuse systems, water-use monitoring software, irrigation system timing and precision technology, and on-farm precision technology."
The reality facing the operators of many of California's 75,000-plus farms: Productivity will take a major cut in the form of fewer acres, less product, and lower yields for those acres that are planted. This week's USDA-NASS Prospective Plantings report for California and Nevada shows planting declines ranging from 5% to 21% for all crops -- including rice, oats, hay, cotton, corn, sunflowers, wheat, and more -- with one exception: sugar beets. Farmers intend to bump acreage for that crop by about 3%.
Acreage cuts aren't the only way farmers are handling the tough hand Mother Nature is dealing them so far this spring, the fourth consecutive year of severe drought for many parts of California. While some farmers are looking at how many acres they can set aside from producing crops in the coming years, others are looking for more ways to get water in the hopes that they can sustain their production without exhausting water supplies or losing a huge amount of profitability.
"Water is a big concern. We are putting down a couple new wells this spring because of the drought situation, and hopefully there will be water available to purchase from some of the settlement-type contractors. We know we will be paying for it, but we need it to survive," Glenn County, California, orchard operator Mike Vereschagin says in a report from Ag Alert, a publication from California Farm Bureau.
After a promising start to the "rainy season" in the Central Valley, things have gone south quickly for farmers like Tom Ikeda, a vegetable farmer in San Luis Obispo County, where he's had less than 2 inches of rain since mid-December. The situation, he admits, will be worse than last year, and while it's got him weighing how many acres he'll take out of production this year, he's trying to find the bright side.
"The dry weather has allowed everyone to stay on their planting schedule, and an extremely warm January sped up maturation of the crops by as much as three weeks. This, along with reduced demand on the East Coast due to weather problems, has resulted in abundant supplies and lower-than-normal prices. Unless there is a natural disaster in one of the main growing areas, supplies should remain consistent until the effects of the ground fallowing kicks in. This may occur around early summer if rumors of fallowing come to fruition," he tells California Farm Bureau's Ag Alert. "On the brighter side, less ground in production may help to slightly alleviate the shortage of labor and also increase prices for those who have enough water for crop production. Only time will tell."