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Rice farmers describe impact of water cutbacks

Issue Date: April 22, 2015
By Ching Lee

California rice farmers say deeper water cutbacks this year will not only force many of them to fallow more ground, but there will be less water available to transfer to other farmers and areas facing shortages.

Helped by storms in December and February, water supplies in the Sacramento Valley are in better shape than other parts of the state, said David Guy, president of the Northern California Water Association. But every part of the region will still see water reductions this year, he added, ranging from 25 percent to 100 percent.

"Everyone is going to suffer in some fashion," Guy said.

As rice planting begins in the Sacramento Valley, farmers with senior water rights along the Sacramento River received final word that they will have 75 percent of their supply for the second year in a row. Those who divert from the Feather River will have their water cut by 50 percent. Farmers on the east side of the valley will face cuts from 30 percent to 60 percent, while those who buy water from the federal Central Valley Project will get no water for a second straight year.

At a media briefing late last week to discuss impacts of the four-year drought on rice growers, the California Rice Commission said it expects more land will be idled this year, but exactly how much won't be known until later this spring. Growers planted 23 percent less rice acreage in 2014 than in 2013, according to the commission.

Similar to last year, Colusa County farmer Don Bransford said he will need to fallow more rice ground in order to generate enough revenue to buy water on the open market to take care of his prunes and almonds, which are in the Colusa County Water District that will not be getting any water. He grows rice in the Glenn-Colusa Irrigation District that's being cut 25 percent.

What will help, he said, is that he now has one well and is drilling a second to supply his orchards. He has not had to lay off any employees, but he noted he will hire fewer seasonal employees for his rice operation.

Sutter County rice farmer Nicole Van Vleck said her overall water supply is being cut 55 percent. With zero water from the Sutter Bypass, 50 percent from the Feather River and 75 percent from the Sacramento River, Van Vleck said she will need to rely more on groundwater to plant about what she planted last year.

She noted junior water-right holders in the Sutter Bypass will have their supplies cut off starting May 1. Even if farmers are able to plant their fields before then, there would be no water for the remainder of the season to keep the crop alive, she said, and very few people in that region have access to groundwater, the quality of which is very salty.

Van Vleck said although she was able to sell some water last year in the Garden Highway Mutual Water Co., that option is off the table this year because of the cuts to Feather River settlement contractors.

Some water districts, particularly those that are small, have no-fallowing policies because of the economic impact to jobs and ancillary businesses in the region when rice ground is idled, Van Vleck explained. She noted some of the water sales last year were allowed to occur because they were groundwater-substitution transfers, meaning farmers used groundwater on their crop in order to sell a portion of their surface water. But with further water cutbacks this year, transfers of that nature will be much more difficult, she added.

About 200,000 acre-feet of water from the Sacramento River will be available this year to transfer to water-short districts north and south of the delta, at a price ranging from $400 to $665 per acre-foot.

Water sales have gone down significantly since the early 1990s, when transfers were in the magnitude of about a million acre-feet compared to this year's 200,000 acre-feet, Guy said.

Today, more of that water is kept in the region for farming and environmental requirements. State regulations restrict how many contiguous acres can be fallowed, to protect habitat for the giant garter snake that lives and hunts in rice fields and adjacent ditches, according to the Rice Commission.

Revenue from water sales not only offsets a farmer's loss of income from fallowing land but it also pays for programs that help salmon restoration, flood protection, water efficiency and wildlife habitat, said Lewis Bair, general manager of Reclamation District 108.

With 10 fulltime employees, Sutter County farmer Steve Butler said the prospect of selling water and fallowing ground is less appealing to him because of the impact it would have on his employees. His 75 percent water allocation will allow him to plant about 66 percent of his rice acreage, which is what he planted last year.

But for other farms, water transfers could be a valuable option, Butler said, as the income from the sales could help those farms afford new equipment, pay business expenses and allow some flexibility that they normally might not have.

With supplies to Feather River settlement contractors being cut 50 percent, Bryce Lundberg, vice president of agriculture at Lundberg Family Farms, said his farm will grow as much rice as it needs to meet customer expectations and then fallow the rest.

He pointed out that water used to grow rice has multiple purchases: It is first used in rivers by fish and then to grow rice. In the fall, flooded rice fields provide food and habitat for waterfowl, shorebirds and other species of wildlife. That water also recharges the aquifer, he added.

When rice acreage is reduced, the 4 million to 6 million migratory birds that use those fields as a resting place during the winter become very crowded, allowing diseases to spread more easily, said Mark Biddlecomb, director of Ducks Unlimited's western region.

John Brennan, a partner of the grower-owned and -operated Robbins Rice Co., said while rice farmers managed to absorb some of the impact from the drought last year, "there's a tremendous amount of uncertainty out there in the rice world" this year, particularly for related businesses including rice mills, rice dryers and aerial applicators. He said the Sacramento Valley could see an additional 20 percent reduction in its rice acreage this year, and that has many farmers "getting ready for bad times."

"There's just a lot of angst out there," he said.

(Ching Lee is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. She may be contacted at

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

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