In south state, lingering drought worries farmers


Issue Date: January 18, 2017
By Kevin Hecteman

Sometimes, it takes a dry sense of humor to deal with a years-long drought—especially when you've watched a wave of storms hammer Northern California and realize your end of the state is missing out. "Better rain dances" is what Ken Doty said he'd need to alleviate the parched conditions at his Goleta orchards, where he grows avocados and citrus.

"We are getting some rain," Doty said. "We're tracking right on the average annual year-to-date figures, but we have not had anywhere near enough to recover from the drought."

Some farmers say they sense a meteorological imbalance.

"You guys have been hoarding it all in Northern California, because I really haven't had that much," said Terry Munz, a dryland grain farmer west of Lancaster in Los Angeles County.

"We get little showers going through here," Munz said. "I was just looking today, and I'm going, 'Boy, L.A.'s had over an inch of rain, and I've only had 20 hundredths.'"

The Southern California water year, which began Oct. 1, has been below average so far, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor, which said southern Santa Barbara, Ventura, southern Kern and northwestern Los Angeles counties remain in a state of severe drought. Lake Cachuma in Santa Barbara County and Lake Casitas and Lake Piru in Ventura County remain far below average, according to the monitor, as do several reservoirs in Los Angeles County.

"Lastly, even with the rains, no stream flows have been generated in the Santa Ynez, Ventura and Santa Clara watersheds," the Drought Monitor said.

So what options do farmers have?

"I don't know," Doty said. "It's going to look awfully bleak. … We've already been making tough choices, stumping trees."

He said he has eliminated a small percentage of low-producing trees.

"The guy beside me has stumped 50 or 60 percent of his avocado acreage," Doty said. "It has hurt, and it's going to keep hurting until we get back into some sort of a better supply/storage system."

Doty and others along the Santa Barbara County coast rely on Lake Cachuma, which is fed by the Santa Ynez River. As of last week, the lake held a mere 8 percent of its capacity—16,606 acre-feet of water. The lake is capable of holding 205,000 acre-feet.

In neighboring Ventura County, strawberry grower Edgar Terry saw a mixed bag.

"We have been getting steady rain this week," Terry said. "The nice thing is that it has been coming gently, so we have not had much runoff."

As of last week, he'd seen 7.5 inches of rain, he said. Still, it hasn't been enough, not in a region dependent on groundwater.

"For us to have meaningful underground aquifer recharge, we will need to exceed 14 inches average rainfall each of the next five years," Terry said. "Even though we are not near 14 inches at this point, we are not having to turn on the water wells to irrigate the crops that are currently planted, so that is a good thing."

In Los Angeles County, Munz was watching the weather reports and weighing his planting decisions. As a dryland farmer, he uses no irrigation—only whatever water falls from the sky.

Munz said he hoped to have his crop in the ground by the end of January.

"I got a pretty good storm right before Christmas, but then I've been having all these little storms that have been keeping me out of the field," he said. "I really don't like to work my ground too wet. Then the weeds just keep on growing in it."

Munz said his area averages 12 inches of rain per year, and as of late last week had received 4.

"I haven't had more than 7 inches of rain here for five years," he said.

"If I could ever get some really deep moisture in the ground, that's what really helps," Munz said. "If I could get 3 to 4 feet of moisture in my ground, I'm pretty much guaranteed a crop. Right now, it's only maybe about a foot and a half."

Al Stehly of Valley Center said he was pleased to see the Sierra snowpack make a comeback. He has a small well on his property, but otherwise relies mainly on the Valley Center Municipal Water District. The district imports a portion of its water supply from the State Water Project, which relies on Sierra Nevada precipitation, and a portion from the Colorado River.

"If we can get more water from the north rather than the Colorado River, it's better for our crops because it's not as salty," said Stehly, who grows avocados, mandarins, lemons and grapefruit on his San Diego County farm. "Most crops are salt-sensitive, so the more salt we put on the ground, the more tip burn we get."

Salt also reduces the yield, he added.

The Drought Monitor had encouraging news for Stehly and his neighbors: As of late last week, the Sierra snowpack held more than 160 percent of its average water content for this time of year.

As to local precipitation: "This year, we're thinking, 'Wow, this is a lot of rain,'" Stehly said, "but I think this just gets us back up to average."

He said the region averages 12 inches of rain per year, and as of last week, rainfall stood at a little more than 7 inches.

"Every couple of days, we've been getting a little rain, spaced out really nice so it's not all at once, which is great," he said. "We're enjoying it."

For dryland farmer Munz, the varying precipitation totals underscored the uncertainties of his occupation.

"Sometimes I tell some of my friends, 'Maybe I should just go to Vegas and put all the money I spend farming on a roulette wheel,'" Munz joked. "I wouldn't have to farm for 10 years, or I'd just have to do it again. It's pretty much just like gambling, because you just never know."

(Kevin Hecteman is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. He may be contacted at khecteman@cfbf.com.)

Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.