Dry winter forces farmers to revise crop plans

Issue Date: March 7, 2012
By Kate Campbell
Farmer Joe Bacchetti of Tracy looks at an empty irrigation canal near his field. Alfalfa planted in the field is stunted by lack of soil moisture, well before the irrigation season would typically begin.
Photo/Kate Campbell
Farmer Joe Bacchetti digs into the soil checking for moisture—and finds none.
Photos/Kate Campbell
Irrigation pipes beside this alfalfa field are ready when irrigation water arrives. But the stunted crop might not be alive when it gets there.
Photos/Kate Campbell

Last week's rains were too little, too late to save Joe Bacchetti's newly planted alfalfa fields. The Tracy farmer said he usually doesn't irrigate in February because winter rains typically provide enough moisture to get the crop going.

Not this year.

The beginning of the 2012 crop year is one of the driest on record, which means little soil moisture and drastic reductions in water deliveries for Bacchetti and farmers throughout the state. The concern now is how to manage meager supplies through the long, hot summer months to harvest a crop.

"The rivers are so low, we have to set priorities for the water we draw," said Bacchetti, who is president of Fabian Tract Reclamation District No. 773, which draws water from the lower reaches of the San Joaquin River and delivers it to farms.

"We're trying to save the seedling alfalfa, so we're not irrigating grass crops and shifting water to the new alfalfa," he said. "But alfalfa needs soil moisture and there's no moisture in the ground right now. We don't have enough water to do pre-irrigations."

Bacchetti farms on an island in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, surrounded by water, and yet there's not enough water available to serve the district's farmers.

In the Turlock Irrigation District farther south, this year's irrigation allotment has been set at 24 inches with an additional 6 inches available above the allotment, for a total cap of 30 inches of water per acre. This compares to a baseline allotment of 48 inches last year.

And, late winter storms last year caused TID water managers to extend the start of the irrigation season into mid-March. This year, emergency irrigation began in January.

TID said the 2012 water year is shaping up to be the driest on record.

The federal Central Valley Project announced last month a preliminary allocation of 30 percent of contract amount for agricultural customers north and south of the delta. Sacramento River settlement contractors and San Joaquin River exchange and settlement contractors, who receive water based on pre-CVP water rights, were allocated 75 percent of their contract supply.

"Hydrologically, 2012 is shaping up to be a challenging year," said Don Glaser, regional director for the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation. "The good news is that we started the water year with exceptional carryover storage."

The State Water Project also cited the benefit of good reservoir storage levels, but lowered its preliminary water allocation from 60 percent to 50 percent of contract amount.

Water experts are watching storage levels at San Luis Reservoir drop as the irrigation season gets under way early and stored water is being drawn down. San Luis provides 2.1 million acre-feet of offstream storage capacity for state and federal water projects.

In Merced and Fresno counties, where Jeff Marchini grows a variety of crops, he said there's a huge difference in water supply availability on the east side of the valley compared to the west side, where supplies will be tightest.

"As we move into March, I'd like to stay optimistic, but we're all realizing that now we need to find ways to reduce water usage—more drip irrigation and micro-emitters, for example," said Marchini, Merced County Farm Bureau president.

"But when it comes to permanent crops, even if we're using better water application technology, the usage per acre isn't reduced," he said. "The crop still requires the same amount of water. Now, with row crops, we can reduce the amount of water applied and we can reduce planted acres."

What farmers are really looking for, Marchini said, are ways to add to their water supply.

"Those fortunate enough to have wells, will pump. Those who can afford it will look to buy water on the spot market," he said.

Right now, there's very little water available on the spot market, Marchini said, because "growers are up in the air about how much they'll actually have and what the price will be. They're hanging onto their water."

The Westlands Water District is assessing agricultural water needs right now, Marchini said, to determine which growers will need supplemental water supplies and where water can be freed up for others.

Facing a 70 percent reduction in surface water deliveries from the CVP, Fresno farmer David Britz said he is being forced to use his wells, which means increased energy costs and water of lesser quality, to irrigate almonds, tomatoes, cotton and onions. He said he'll cut back on acres planted and forego planting certain crops, such as barley.

"We may have to change our planting intentions further," Britz said. "We'll just have to wait and look at the final water allocation and work with our water district to make adjustments."

Britz had this advice as he scanned weather reports and reviewed bullish commodity prices: "You can't be overly optimistic and plant more crops and acres than you have enough water to cover. Getting too aggressive could get you into economic trouble when you don't make a crop. Be conservative."

To offset water shortages in Kern County, Curtis Creel, Kern County Water Agency water resources manager, said people, farms and businesses will have to rely more heavily on water previously stored in the ground to make up for low state and federal allocations.

"Even if conditions improve, federal rules intended to protect chinook salmon and delta smelt will continue to limit the (pumping) capacity for both the SWP and the CVP," Creel said, noting that even with a lower water allocation, the agency is contractually obligated to make full payment for its entire SWP water allocation.

"Farmers will still have to pay their full costs while finding a way to buy other water to keep their crops alive," he said. "Fortunately, local groundwater banking projects had their biggest year of recharge in 2011, which will help offset a portion of the reduced SWP water supplies, at least for now."

(Kate Campbell is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. She may be contacted at kcampbell@cfbf.com.)

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