California agriculture braces as drought enters third year

By Derrick Cain

© Copyright Agri-Pulse Communications, Inc.



With California entering its third year of drought and near-term prospects for precipitation looking bleak, state and industry officials say they are taking whatever steps are available to minimize the impact another year of dry weather will have on a $45-billion agricultural economy, the largest in the nation and one of the largest in the world.

The U.S. Drought Monitor had little hope to offer late last week. “There seems to be no (drought) relief in sight as the calendar flips over to 2014,” the agency said, noting that persistent “ridging” - elongated areas of high atmospheric pressure - has kept precipitation at bay, leading to record-setting dryness for a large portion of the state.

The Drought Monitor, a service offered through the University of Nebraska-Lincoln with the cooperation of USDA, the Commerce Department and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, said more deterioration could be coming soon in the state, “given the weather pattern, or lack thereof, and concern for water supply, fire and other impacts grows each week the rains and snows don't come.”

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The agency said many locations in California reported 2013 as the driest year on record, smashing previous record dry years. Cited as an example was Northern California's Shasta Dam, which creates the largest single reservoir in the state, accounting for about 17 percent of the state's total water storage capacity. Just less than 17 inches of precipitation was reported there in 2013, more than 11 inches below the previous record low of 28 inches in 1976. The 2013 number is especially shocking, given that Shasta's calendar year average is nearly 63 inches.

Since the state's “water year” began Oct. 1, upper elevation Sierra Mountain snowpack and snow water equivalent (SWE) values - a key source in feeding California's reservoirs   have dwindled to 20 percent of normal, a reading the Drought Monitor calls “abysmal.”

In a joint meeting last week of the California Department of Food and Agriculture (CDFA) Board, the California Department of Water Resources (DWR) and the State Water Resources Control Board, representatives discussed water transfers and drought preparedness. The state has more than 80,000 farms with more than 400 different crops, as well as beef and dairy cattle. In addition to being the dominant U.S. producer of fruits, vegetables and nuts (including 80 percent of the world's almonds), California is the leading dairy producer in the U.S.

“California's farmers and ranchers need to prepare for a potentially significant drought year,” said CDFA Secretary Karen Ross. “We are looking at scenarios in which considerable land fallowing and unsustainable groundwater overdraft will occur, leading to direct impacts within our rural farming communities.” CDFA is partnering with federal and state government agencies to establish an information resource for farmers as the drought persists.

Dave Kranz, director of communications for the California Farm Bureau, says the state's growers “are not giving up,” noting that 2½ months remain in California's rainy season. But even with rains and additional snowpack arriving before the end of March, the cumulative lack of precipitation over the past two years will cause a summer of distress for farmers. “It's only a matter of degree,” he said.

Kranz said that without additional precipitation, it is likely that the agriculturally rich San Joaquin Valley, known as the “food basket of the world” and produces grapes, cotton, nuts, tomatoes, oranges, peaches and a wide variety of vegetables, will receive, at most 10 percent of its normal irrigation allocation, and possibly none.

USDA has already declared every county in the state a natural disaster area, making qualified farmers in those locations eligible for emergency loans.

Meanwhile, growers and local water district officials have called on Governor Jerry Brown to proclaim a drought emergency, a designation that would, among other things, offer water districts more flexibility and ease the bureaucratic process involved in transfers from districts with ample supplies to districts in need. Brown is not expected to make a decision on the disaster designation until the state Department of Water Resources conducts its next snowpack survey around Feb. 1.

Kranz says the drought is reducing crop diversity. He estimated some 500,000 farmland acres are expected to remain fallow, a number that could grow as producers forego growing tomatoes and other, more provisional ground crops, and focus their limited water resources on the trees and vines that have come from multi-year investments in money and labor and produce permanent crops. He also said there may be some regional shifts in crops as some production moves away from normal growing areas to lands with access to more water.

Livestock producers are facing hard times as cattle and sheep find little forage. For example, large swaths of alfalfa in the San Joaquin Valley died from frost in November and there is no new growth due to the lack of rain. Given the widespread extent of the drought, sheep producers trying to transition their animals from alfalfa to native grasses as they grow and consume more are finding that new ground to feed them is becoming increasingly sparse.

Kranz says the state's Farm Bureau has called for the construction of more reservoirs since the 1980s. “If we had more ways to capture water when it falls, we could better handle the extended periods of drought that we now face,” he said.

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