Storms bolster snowpack, bring strong winds

Issue Date: January 27, 2010
Ron Miller

Farmer Mike Vereschagin, shown in his partially flooded Glenn County almond orchard, says he will gain more from additional water supplies than he'll lose from the scattered tree losses he suffered during last week's storms.

After a week during which much of California experienced storms that lashed the state with heavy rains and strong winds, farmers and ranchers reported scattered damage but said the benefit for water supplies would far outweigh the losses to individual crops.

The California Department of Water Resources reported the storms had boosted the Sierra Nevada snowpack to 115 percent of average by Monday, with additional snow forecast for this week. Snow levels in the northern Sierra stood at 123 percent of average, the central Sierra at 102 percent and the southern region at 126 percent.

State hydrologist Maury Roos said the snowpack added eight inches of water content during the week of Jan. 18-25.

"But it is too early to say the drought is over," he said, "In the past, we've said it looks good, and then it is dry the rest of the season."

Monday marked the midpoint in the state's traditional rainy season.

Several of last week's storms were accompanied by winds that gusted as high as 50-60 miles per hour in the Central Valley.

Glenn County almond and prune grower Mike Vereschagin said he lost a few trees during the storms, but that "having the water supply is worth much more compared to losing a few trees."

A flooded almond tree in Glenn County withstands rising waters caused by heavy rainstorms that hit the state last week.

"This rain is good for everybody: the urban population, farms and ranches and the environment," he said, while adding his concern about how much water has been "flowing out of the foothills and into the Sacramento River and then out through the delta and under the Golden Gate Bridge. That's an example of where more reservoirs on those streams could be storing that water for use in dry times."

"That water flowing out through the Golden Gate symbolizes the problems facing California's water system," California Farm Bureau Director of Water Resources Danny Merkley said. "We have an antiquated system that hasn't kept up with population growth, changing precipitation patterns and increased environmental requirements. California needs more flexibility to store and move water during wet periods like this, so it's available later for people and the environment."

Wind gusts of 80 miles per hour were reported in San Diego County, damaging avocado trees and fruit as well as trees used in landscapes.

San Diego County avocado grower Al Stehly said the winds did blow some avocados off trees at his ranch near Valley Center. He said his crews will attempt to salvage what they can when the ground dries. The winds could have caused scarring of fruit still on trees, but that won't show up for several weeks or more. Stehly said he knew of one tree that had blown over and he could find more once the ground dries and inspections can be made. Avocado growers in other counties are also assessing damage but wind speeds were less.

Lemon growers in San Diego County reported trees being down and branches broken, and the potential for some scarring of fruit because of the powerful winds.

To the north in Ventura County, the lemon harvest is just starting. Assistant county agricultural commissioner Alan Laird said Ventura County escaped the strong winds reported farther south.

"We've had 7 inches of rain in Ventura County," he added.

Ventura County lemon and avocado grower David Schwabauer said his orchards had plenty of rain and not much wind, adding that the rain was "very beneficial and I've not noticed any scarring."

Farm Bureau of Ventura County CEO John Krist said fruit and vegetable growers who were harvesting had delays, but characterized the rain overall as "a good thing." He said reservoirs in the county were filling from the precipitation.

Eric Larson, executive director of the San Diego County Farm Bureau, said strawberry growers in his county had just started harvest, and the rain would ruin ripe fruit. The county Farm Bureau said an organic strawberry grower located near the Mexican border lost a considerable amount of his crop when Tijuana River levees failed.

Santa Barbara County grower Ed Terry said he'd sent his strawberry crews home.

"We had one crew stripping fruit on one ranch and another picking fruit on another ranch, but pulled them both as it just got too wet," he said. Because of the heavy amounts of rain, he said, probably all ripe strawberries will be sent to processors for juice.

In the short term, Terry said he expects a gap in the California strawberry pipeline as fields recover from the rain. He said growers from Mexico and Florida could supply the strawberry market until California production resumes, although Florida farmers are just recovering from a freeze. California Strawberry Commission spokesperson Carolyn O'Donnell said she doesn't think the supply gap will be very long, as some fields were already drying out last weekend.

Terry noted that strawberry plants will benefit from the rain in the long term and produce high-quality fruit once they dry out, because the rain helps leach salts from the soil.

Terry also grows celery this time of year and said that crop isn't bothered by rain. His workers were out harvesting in it, wearing their rain gear.

"Celery likes the rain," he said. "It's a mess to harvest, but we just get it out of the field and off to market."

Rain in Imperial County has caused farmers to lose two days of harvest thus far. El Centro usually receives about 3 inches of rain each year, but in the first three weeks of January, 2.3 inches had fallen.

Farmer Joe Colace Jr. said much of his winter vegetable crop was being grown in the Yuma, Ariz., area, where about the same amount of rain fell, and said "the rain is not helping, especially if you have fields that do not drain well." Standing water could allow bottom rot to develop in vegetables.

Colace said he planned to have his crews start harvest as soon as the fields dried. He grows head lettuce and romaine this time of year. Prices for both softened when cold weather hit the Eastern U.S. Colace said he hoped the brief supply gap created by the rain might cause on-farm prices to increase once harvest resumed.

Central Valley orange growers had harvest operations interrupted by the rain, but didn't seem to mind. At the Fresno County Farm Bureau, public relations coordinator Liz Hudson said no one was unhappy about the rain, and Tulare County citrus grower Keith Watkins said, "I don't see any down side to it."

Bob Blakely, director of industry relations for California Citrus Mutual, said farmers had advance warning that the storms were coming and thus picked ahead. Packinghouses had fruit in the pipeline, so there shouldn't be any supply gaps unless it rains steadily every day for several weeks. Farmers said a few dry days with light winds will quickly dry the fruit so harvest can resume.

Dairy farmers monitor water more closely during storms to make certain they meet waste discharge requirements. The California Dairy Quality Assurance Program reminded farmers last week that with anticipated storms in the upcoming month, they need to continue monitoring and sampling any runoff water that may occur as required.

(Ron Miller is a reporter for Ag Alert. He may be reached at Reporter Kathy Coatney contributed information to this story.)

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