Farmers assess aftermath of stormy March weather

Issue Date: April 6, 2011
By Ching Lee
March storms swelled runoff into Lake Shasta, the largest Central Valley Project reservoir, above, which reached 91 percent of capacity last week.
Photos/Kathy Coatney
Strong winds also blew down almond trees in some locations, including Hart Ranch in Glenn County, where farm manager Darin Titus kneels by one of the downed trees.
Photos/Kathy Coatney

Heavy rainfall this season and massive snow buildup in the Sierra Nevada have improved this year's water outlook for California farmers, but the deluge that drenched the state last month also caused crop damage, planting delays and other concerns for some growers.

Generally speaking, though, the state's farmers and ranchers welcomed the rain and snow, which replenished reservoirs, recharged groundwater and improved rangeland conditions.

March precipitation has helped register 2011 among the top years in snowpack water content, despite dry weather in January and early February, according to the state Department of Water Resources.

The impressive snowpack led Gov. Brown to officially end the state's drought status last week. His announcement came after DWR completed a snow survey that showed water content in California's mountain snowpack had reached 165 percent of the April 1 full season average.

California Farm Bureau Federation President Paul Wenger said the state must improve its water system to end chronic water shortages that still confront many Californians despite the plentiful precipitation.

"By one measure, the California drought certainly has ended. By another, it never ends," he said. "Even with all this rain and snow, farmers in parts of the Central Valley still face water shortages because of conflicts over endangered species fish protection and other restrictions."

In the federal Central Valley Project, farmers south of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta will now be able to purchase 65 percent of their water supply allocations, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation announced last week. That's an increase of 10 percent from allocations announced only a week earlier. For State Water Project customers, allocations stand at 70 percent.

Farmers are beginning to plant crops now, and the additional water from the CVP could allow acreage to expand somewhat, said Gayle Holman, spokeswoman for Westlands Water District, which delivers water to farmers on the west side of the San Joaquin Valley. She said she had heard from farmers who indicated they would plant more cotton because of the increased water allocations.

While some south-of-delta farmers may be planting more acreage because of the higher allocations, Paul Betancourt, who farms cotton, almonds and other crops in Kerman, said he has not changed his planting plans. He installed a well last year to ensure he would have water available regardless of the allocations. But with his crop rotation plan, he said he will plant less cotton this year even though prices are better.

Wenger noted that much of the water swelling California rivers and streams this spring represents "a lost opportunity."

"All of us will wish we had that water available when we have our next dry winter. That could be next year, or the year after, but we know drought will come again, probably soon," he said.

Most of the state's major reservoirs are currently above normal storage levels, according to DWR.

Torrential rains and high water have also renewed concerns about weak levees and the state's preparedness for flooding. About 16 miles southeast of Salinas, the surging Salinas River breached a portion of a levee, flooding hundreds of acres of farmland.

Chris Bunn, a Salinas-based vegetable grower and shipper, said his operation was not affected by the floods, but he saw some fields under water that will not be harvested. For him, the rain just meant waiting a few more days before getting back in the field.

"We love rain. This rain is wonderful. We'll take all the rain we can get, because we need water in the Salinas Valley," he said.

The series of powerful storms did damage some almond trees. Dave Baker, spokesman for Blue Diamond Growers, estimates about 1 percent of the state's older trees were toppled by strong winds, but the newer ones held up well. It is too early to tell how large a crop has set, he said. There was rain during much of the bloom, but the bloom was longer than average and there were breaks in the rain when bees could fly, he noted.

Betancourt, the Westside farmer, said his almond trees were hit with rain and hail, which may impact his production.

Todd Hirasuma, who grows a variety of vegetables on the east side of Fresno County, estimates he is about seven to 10 days late in planting his crops because of the wet weather. That will mean a later harvest, he said, although warmer-than-average conditions could make up the time.

Some farmers in the Sacramento Valley may be as much as three weeks behind in their planting schedules due to rain, said Mike Montna, president of the California Tomato Growers Association, but he said a warm, dry April could help them catch up.

Jim Borchard, who farms processing tomatoes, wheat and safflower in Yolo County, said soggy fields have prevented him from planting his tomatoes, but he does not think it is a huge problem at this point.

"It's going to make for a much more bunched-up harvest four to five months from now. That's probably more of a concern," he said.

One benefit from the generous rainfall is that he may not need to irrigate his wheat this year as he normally would. And with recent warm temperatures, he said he is right on schedule to start planting safflower sometime this week.

San Joaquin County farmer Art Perry, who grows watermelons in Manteca, said recent storms have halted field preparation for planting. He said he likes to start planting in March, but the ground has been too wet. However, 10 days of warm weather will dry out lighter soils, so harvest shouldn't be thrown off schedule too much, he said.

Strawberry production has rebounded and will continue to pick up after a lull during the rainy weather, said Carolyn O'Donnell, spokeswoman for the California Strawberry Commission. She noted some Southern California farmers avoided harvest delays from rain, so production never completely stopped.

Production last week was up to about a million and a half trays, she said. Growers typically ship about 4 million trays this time of year. She said full production should resume in time to meet pre-Easter demand.

(Ching Lee is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. She may be contacted at Reporter Ron Miller contributed to this story.)

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