News Column

Calif. Drought Forces Farmland Out of Production

February 26, 2014

Andrew Creasey, Appeal-Democrat


Feb. 26--Prompted by the latest round of water cutbacks, tens of thousands of agricultural acres could be taken out of production.

The Bureau of Reclamation announced the initial Central Valley Water Project allocation last week, prompting unprecedented measures for local districts diverting from the Sacramento River. North-of-Delta contractors saw their upcoming water deliveries _ slated to begin in April _ reduced in range from 60 to 100 percent.

The allocation could change as two storm systems move through the area this week, but most water districts are anticipating that massive swaths of land will be fallowed as farmers funnel their ever-dwindling irrigation water to permanent crops.

"This is unheard of," said Lewis Bair, general manager for Reclamation District 108. "Our growers are looking at fallowing two-thirds of their property. It's going to be tough."

Bair said the district is anticipating about 30,000 acres of crops will be fallowed. The Glenn-Colusa Irrigation District is estimating that it will only be able to irrigate 55,000 of its 132,000 acres, according to a letter from the district to its water users.

Settlement contracts

Water contracts such as those held by Reclamation District 108 and the Glenn-Colusa Irrigation District are known as settlement contracts, meaning both districts were diverting from the Sacramento River before the construction of the Shasta Dam.

Once the dam was built, the districts agreed to decrease diversions in exchange for greater water-supply reliability, Bair said.

Since 1964, Reclamation District 108 has only received a 75 percent water delivery, the lowest its contract outlines, four times. This year the delivery would be 40 percent.

"We have a contract that says one thing, and the bureau is making an allocation not contemplated in the contract. So what does that mean?" Bair said. "We understand it's an extreme situation, but does this set a precedent that we're a discretionary contract?"

Bair said the district is in talks with the bureau and hopes the rain forecast this week will improve the situation.

Fallowing acreage

Fallowing seemed to be the primary impact of the bureau's announcement for most other Yuba-Sutter growers.

John Oji, owner of Oji Brothers Farms, has about 2,000 acres of crops in Sutter County. If the initial allocations stands, he said he will only have enough irrigation water to ensure that his 410 acres of walnut trees survive the summer.

"There's no way we can farm all of our property," Oji said. "I have some groundwater capacity, but it's not sufficient enough to farm everything."

Oji has a contract to receive 3,200 acre-feet from the bureau.

Other growers will feel the cutbacks in their bank accounts.

Joan Joaquin leases 350 acres for rice crops in Sutter County. Joaquin's growers have not yet planted their rice crops due to a lack of irrigation water.

This means that her usual May check, an advance on planted crops, won't come.

Joaquin said she has other sources of income, but worries about the effect on her renters, who have insurance which pays out at 45 percent of average production.

"We will be badly hurt by this," Joaquin said.

Other growers were concerned about the economic impact on the sectors that rely on agricultural production.

In Sutter County, the indirect benefits of agriculture totaled $2 billion in 2012. In Yuba County, it was $866 million, according to the counties' 2012 annual crop reports.

"I worry about employment and the effects on the county," Bair said. "The loss of crops will have a real ripple effect on all the jobs that are associated with it."

Rain expected today

A series of rain storms is expected to come through Yuba-Sutter starting today, but the area needs about 10 more such storms to approach a normal year of rainfall, said Drew Peterson, meteorologist with the National Weather Service.

The two systems will last into early next week and are expected to drop about 1.75 inches of rain.

At this point, any precipitation helps, but with the dawn of March, the storms are expected to warm up, which does little to bolster the dismal Sierra snowpack that provide the bulk of the late-summer runoff to feed the reservoirs, Peterson said.

"We need some precipitation to be falling as snow," Peterson said. "If we don't, we're going to have a tough time this summer."

Snowpack in the central Sierra is at 30 percent of the normal.

By the Numbers

Several water service contracts will have water deliveries from the Bureau of Reclamation reduced to zero. The figures listed are the total deliveries for a normal water year:

-- Colusa Drain Mutual Water Co.: 70,000 acre-feet.

-- Colusa County Water District: 62,200 acre-feet.

-- Glenn Valley Water District: 1,730 acre-feet.

Other contracts will be reduced by 60 percent, from the following totals for a normal year:

-- Glenn-Colusa Irrigation District: 825,000 acre-feet.

-- Maxwell Irrigation District: 17,980 acre-feet.

-- Meridian Water Co.: 35,000 acre-feet.

-- Reclamation District 108: 232,000 acre-feet.

-- Sutter Mutual Water Co.: 226,000 acre-feet.


Contact reporter Andrew Creasey at 749-4780 and on Twitter @AD_Creasey.


(c)2014 Appeal-Democrat (Marysville, Calif.)

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Original headline: Drought Watch: Farms looking at big hit

Source: (c)2014 Appeal-Democrat (Marysville, Calif.)

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