'Wet' counties are running dry, too

Issue Date: August 27, 2008
Kate Campbell

"Everybody thinks the water shortage only affects the San Joaquin Valley and that everything up here is hunky-dory," Glenn County farmer Mike Vereschagin said. But in the Sacramento Valley, many farmers struggle with water shortages similar to those affecting farmers to the south.

The state's deepening water crisis is turning Sacramento Valley agriculture upside down. Where the Sacramento River watershed used to provide ample water supplies for farms and cities, today flows to water districts are turning into a trickle.

Glenn County farmer Mike Vereschagin stands in a 41-acre field that a few weeks ago was the site of a prune orchard. Vereschagin said he pulled out the trees because of a shortage of adequate water to irrigate them.

Parts of the region, sometimes referred to as the state's "wet" counties, suffer from a 60 percent cutback in water deliveries from the federal Central Valley Project, just like neighbors who farm south of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta.

Recent federal court decisions relating to protected delta smelt, salmon and steelhead populations have had a statewide impact on water supplies, including water coming from the Sacramento River. Legal experts say the decisions and pending revisions to project operating guidelines have the potential to further tighten water supplies and deliveries to farms.

"Our water district has been trying to get some water transferred from a neighboring district that has available water," said Vereschagin, one of dozens of Sacramento Valley farmers who responded to a Water Shortage Impact Survey conducted by the California Farm Bureau Federation.

Vereschagin, who is president of Glenn County Farm Bureau and a director of the Orland Artois Water District, said the water transfer started last week, but only after the water district received a call from a staff person at the state Department of Water Resources.

"The caller had no idea that there was a contract water district in the north part of the state that was water short," Vereschagin said.

A lot of Sacramento Valley water districts are having trouble coping with the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation's 60 percent water cutback and a worsening drought.

This year's prune and almond crops are being harvested now on Vereschagin Farms, with full bins of fruit and nuts being trucked to processors. The real worry, he said, is the water outlook for next year.

"We're hurting just like districts in the south," he said.

In a normal year, Vereschagin said he relies on groundwater for about 25 percent of irrigation needs for his family farm. The rest comes from district water. This year the ratio reversed and groundwater supplied 75 percent of his farm's irrigation needs.

The reason for the shift is basic math. The Orland Artois Water District supplies irrigation water to about 30,000 acres of farmland, which requires about 85,000 to 90,000 acre-feet a year to be productive.

Glenn County farmer Mike Vereschagin checks a well on his farm that he plans to bring back into service following this year's harvest.

In a full water year, the federal water project provides about 53,000 acre-feet of contract water. That allocation, however, has been cut to 40 percent, which equates to about 25 percent of historical needs and leaves farmers like Vereschagin scrambling. Already he has pulled out a 41-acre prune block to save water, five to seven years earlier than planned.

"That means a gross income loss of more than $130,000 a year," he said. "And we're spending on additional micro sprinklers, well upgrades, new piping and more water management equipment."

Farmers are looking at reduced plantings and increased investments in water supplies and irrigation equipment, he said, on top of skyrocketing fuel and fertilizer costs.

Sacramento Valley farmers say the tight water supplies have prompted a shift to groundwater.

"There's a lot of well work going on up here," Vereschagin said. "I reworked two wells myself and put a new well in last winter. We've got a retired well that we're working to bring back online. We're trying to get ready for next year and the possibility of continuing drought."

Although the impact of the water crisis varies across crops and the eight counties in the Sacramento Valley, a report from the University of California Agricultural Issues Center estimates that those who will suffer the greatest economic hardships from the water shortage will be in the lower-income rural communities, particularly those that depend on rice production.

The Sacramento Valley is the heart of California's rice country, with more than 534,000 acres planted, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. California is the nation's second largest rice producing state, with last year's harvest totaling more than 4 billion pounds.

Even as they dry down their fields for harvest, Sacramento Valley rice farmers say they're concerned about having an adequate supply of what they call "duck water" this winter. During the late fall and winter, farmers add water to rice fields to provide habitat for 10 million to 12 million migrating waterfowl and to help decompose more than 1.5 million tons of rice straw.

"Because there's no more open-field burning, we chop our straw and disk it back into the dirt to help with decomposition," said Butte County rice grower Ryan Coker. "But now my water district has indicated we may not have water available for winter straw decomp."

He said farmers normally start adding water to fields in late October and leave the water on until late January.

"If we can't get the water, I'm not sure what we'll do," said Coker, who is a Butte County Farm Bureau director. "We may be able to work more of the straw into the soil and use that moisture, but it really doesn't work that well."

He said additional passes through the fields to chop the straw use diesel, increase costs and require more labor.

"But the really scary thing is, if we have another dry winter, we assume there will be continued cuts in water, which means we'll only be able to plant half the acres," Coker said.

In Yolo County, Tim Miramontes, who grows rice, wheat, safflower and hay, said he lost half the water he needed for his rice this year and probably won't get it back next year either.

"I didn't go out of production," said Miramontes, who is president of the Yolo County Farm Bureau. "I switched to less valuable crops that use less water. The switch to less valuable crops means more than a $50,000 hit for me. Added to that, I hoped for spring rains for my safflower crop, which I lost because of the drought—another $20,000 hit."

Chris Scheuring, who heads the California Farm Bureau Natural Resources and Environmental Division, said, "For now, folks to the north of the delta are not laboring under the same burden of court-ordered restrictions like the folks south of the delta. But they could find they face additional water supply constraints and that may not be too far off."

Given the protected status of salmon and steelhead, and a federal judge's finding that the fish are in jeopardy, Scheuring said California faces a system-wide water delivery problem. Year-to-year variations in rain and snowfall only compound the trouble, he said.

"This crisis underscores California's economic and environmental vulnerability," Scheuring said. "Even with the best intentions and technology, we're still at the mercy of the clouds."

(Kate Campbell is a reporter for Ag Alert. She may be contacted at kcampbell@cfbf.com.)

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