March storms bring small improvement

Issue Date: March 7, 2018
By Kevin Hecteman
Water stands on the edge of a San Joaquin County vineyard. Storms in the past week brought rain and hail to the Central Valley and snow to the Sierra Nevada—but precipitation totals for the season remain well short of average.
Photo/Dave Kranz

In the space of two to three weeks, California farmers have had to switch from shirtsleeves to parkas to rain gear. That last one at least offered a glimmer of hope for what has been a gloomy 2018 water season so far.

Storms of the past week brought anywhere from one-half to 2 inches of rain in the northern Sacramento Valley and three-quarters to 1¾ inches in the San Joaquin Valley, according to the National Weather Service.

Most importantly, it boosted the Sierra Nevada snowpack from 24 percent of average on March 1—a number that had not changed in a month—to 37 percent by March 5, according to the state Department of Water Resources. On March 5, 2017, the snowpack registered 180 percent of average.

Speaking of average, is there any chance of 2018 measuring up?

"It's going to take a pretty considerable amount of precipitation, and as you're well aware, our wet season will be coming to an end here in the next month to month and a half," said Tom Dang, a National Weather Service meteorologist in Sacramento.

Although Dang put the odds of catching up at "very low," he said signs appear more promising for additional storms in March.

"It does actually look like we've finally broken through, and we're getting back into a more active weather pattern, starting with the storm systems that we saw last week," Dang said.

A weaker system was forecast to move in starting Wednesday, leaving most of its rain in Northern California. Wetter storms were forecast for the weekend and early next week.

Storms last weekend brought some hail to the Fresno area, but no crop-damage reports have come in, said Ryan Jacobsen, executive director of the Fresno County Farm Bureau.

"I know (hail) wasn't widespread," Jacobsen said. "There were definitely pockets of it, but for those that have been hit, right now, from the vine side of things, not a big worry. They're going to start pushing here pretty quickly, but to my knowledge there was nothing."

Whether the weather will improve farmers' water outlook is another story. The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation recently announced a 20 percent allocation for federal Central Valley Project contractors south of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta.

"Five or seven of these (storms) can make or break a season," Jacobsen said. "Unfortunately, this was really our first or second that we've seen all year."

The recent storms were "enough to make a small difference," he said, "but for a truly different scenario than what we're facing, we would need probably two to three more of these to make a significant dent."

The rains came on the heels of a subfreezing week that may have put a dent in almonds, citrus and other crops vulnerable to extended chilly weather. It will be weeks, if not harvest time, before the full extent of the impact becomes known.

One citrus grower said he thinks he dodged a bullet, at least with this year's crop.

"We got lucky," said John Konda, who runs Konda Farms in Porterville. "It was not as cold here as predicted. We will just have to wait and see how the new growth looks in a few weeks."

Konda's Lisbon 8A lemons had been picked for size just before the freeze, and he said he believes the remaining crop survived with little damage, thanks to irrigation and wind machines.

His concern now lies with the new flush and blooms for next year's citrus crop.

Suntreat field representative Bill Wallace said he believes most of the freeze damage will be found in isolated cold areas and on orchard borders.

Beatris Espericueta Sanders, executive director of the Kern County Farm Bureau, said she was keeping an eye on almonds and table grapes.

"If those baby grapes get frost, they likely will stunt their growth for the rest of the season," Sanders said.

Frost this time of year, she said, would be "incredibly" troublesome for many Kern County crops.

"You ask any grower who's been doing this more than a couple of years, and he knows it's all a gamble," Sanders said. "We're at the mercy of Mother Nature. This is part of the game."

Part of the game includes watching reservoir levels. Millerton Lake behind Friant Dam was running at 97 percent of average for this time of year as of this week, according to DWR, while Shasta Lake stood at 102 percent of average—though the winter of 2018 can't take any credit.

"Even though we're in a drier-than-normal state for this winter, certainly the situation would be a lot worse if we didn't have that holdover precipitation from last year," Dang said.

Nearly half of California is in some sort of drought status, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor, with about 20 percent in severe drought.

"Obviously, the bountiful year we saw last year has been dried up," Jacobsen said. "With the initial 20 percent allocation for the federal south-of-delta contractors, we're hoping it does go up from there."

(Kevin Hecteman is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. He may be reached at Reporter Cecilia Parsons contributed to this report.)

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