Long dry spell prompts early irrigations

Issue Date: January 10, 2018
By Kevin Hecteman
Joe Valente looks over drip irrigation lines in a pinot noir vineyard he manages for Kautz Farms in Lodi. Valente and other farmers had to fire up their irrigation systems in December to compensate for a dry start to winter.
Photo/Kevin Hecteman

In less than 12 months, Joe Valente went from having far too much water to not nearly enough.

"Every year is different in agriculture," Valente said as he stood in a vineyard near Lodi that needed a rare infusion of irrigation water in December. "This time last year, we were dealing with floodwater, with more than twice normal rainfall. This year, it's just kind of been the opposite."

Such was life in the Sacramento and San Joaquin valleys last month, where the near-total absence of rain forced farmers to turn on the spigots.

How dry was it? This dry: Stockton received 0.05 inch of rain in December 2017, according to the National Weather Service; the norm is 2.22 inches, and in December 2016 it was 2.11. Fresno saw 0.04 inch of rain last month, compared with 2.51 inches a year previously and 1.77 inches typically.

"In a normal year—if there is a normal year anymore—it's (probably) more towards the middle of May we'd start irrigating," said Valente, who manages orchards and vineyards for Lodi-based Kautz Farms. "You come out of the springtime with adequate moisture in the soil, and then you're able to run on that for a little bit, and then typically about the middle of May we'll start irrigating with the drip irrigation."

Valente said he ran drip irrigation on the vines and trees for about 48 hours in mid-December.

"Our thought was to just put a pretty good sum of water under the vines and the trees," Valente said. "It's more just to prepare for dry weather." At one pinot noir vineyard near Lodi, Valente said the vines would normally receive about 36 inches of water over the course of a growing season, with about half coming from rainfall and half from irrigation.

Evaporation has been minimal, he said.

"Of course, the vines are dormant now," Valente said. "The trees are dormant. So they're not utilizing as much water as they normally would do, say, in the summertime when it's hot and there's green foliage on the plant."

Next door to one of Valente's vineyards is a dryland field, planted to forage crops, belonging to his daughter and son-in-law. With no source of water other than rainfall, the field has been struggling.

"You plant it and hope for the best," Valente said. "It's kind of got a yellowish tinge to it right now. Hopefully, with the little bit of rain we're getting now, we'll perk it up a little bit." The field was planted in October and, if all goes well, should be ready to harvest in April, he said.

Down the Valley, Riverdale farmer Donny Rollin also had to find a rainfall replacement. Rollin has almonds, pistachios, wheat and field crops.

"I started a couple of weeks ago (just before Christmas) on my almonds, running some sets just to try and start to build some moisture in the soil," Rollin said. By contrast, in 2017, Rollin barely ran any water until pollination time, in mid-February.

"On the trees, if we don't build the water profile, when they wake up and start to get thirsty and there's nothing there for them, there's no way we'd ever catch back up with them," said Rollin, who also is president of the Fresno County Farm Bureau. "We're trying to just slowly add some water to the soil profile. That way, when they're waking up and ready to go, there's water waiting for them."

At the moment, all the water Rollin is using is coming from the ground.

"I know a lot of the reservoirs have some water in them," Rollin said. "If they do some release, I'll get some surface water, but it won't be enough to push my crop along."

About 20 families live and work on the Rollin ranch, he said, and water will be critical to their livelihoods.

"Guys know how to farm the crops, and we know how to nurture that stuff along," Rollin said. "It's all a matter of where we're getting our water from now, just because our surface water has been cut to next to nothing. So everybody's doing the same thing. They're trying to be sustainable and survive."

At least two irrigation districts were considering the possibility of a winter allocation. Melissa Williams, a spokeswoman for the Modesto Irrigation District, said MID was gearing up to offer irrigation water beginning the week of Jan. 15, depending on weather events. This would be MID's first winter water run since January 2012. That year, MID customers used 9,744 acre-feet of water, Williams said.

"As currently envisioned, these irrigation deliveries will take place for approximately three weeks in an effort to provide some of our landowners with the opportunity to irrigate," Williams said. Any water used would count against a farmer's 2018 allocation, she said.

MID's reservoir, Don Pedro on the Tuolumne River, is in good shape, Williams said; as of Monday morning, the reservoir's elevation stood at 797 feet, or 81 percent of capacity.

Herb Smart of Turlock Irrigation District said late last week that TID's board of directors was to consider opening an early-irrigation period Jan. 18 if staff felt it was necessary. The TID board was set to meet Jan. 9, after Ag Alert's press deadline.

Almond grower David Phippen, who has orchards near Manteca, Ripon and Oakdale, saw the moisture readings from his soil sensors getting low.

"As we were coming into mid-December, we kind of noticed that the soil profile was getting dry," Phippen said. He added about 3 to 4 inches of water, working around his pruning crews.

Phippen also is trying to get rid of mummy nuts, which are almonds left behind on the trees after harvest.

"The mummies come off a lot better if it's raining, so we've been holding off on mummy removal through December," Phippen said. "But starting on the first of January, it was go or no-go time, and we have to go. So we've got all of our shakers shaking through the orchard, even if it's not raining or foggy."

Phippen said he anticipated placing beehives in the orchards around Feb. 1. He said the last thing he wanted to do during bloom time was irrigate, as the added moisture in the atmosphere could encourage the growth of fungal diseases.

Phippen gets water from two irrigation districts, neither of which was offering irrigation water as of last week. Phippen said he has backup wells on all of his ranches.

Phippen said he was hoping the December irrigation "tides us over until the January rains come marching in."

Indeed, those rains came marching in this week, with an atmospheric river protected to drop 2 to 4 inches of rain from Sacramento to Ventura. With large swaths of Northern and Southern California devastated by wildfires in October and December, the National Weather Service was warning of the potential for debris flows. Evacuation orders were issued for areas below the Thomas Fire burn zone in Santa Barbara and Ventura counties.

The Weather Service's Sacramento office said Monday that snow levels were expected to be high—about 8,000 feet.

"California as a whole has been passed by snowfall this year," said Ryan Jacobsen, executive director of the Fresno County Farm Bureau. "It hasn't just been the central San Joaquin region; it's actually been Northern California as well. We are not expecting a necessarily good water allocation announcement come March if conditions persist in the way they are right now."

(Kevin Hecteman is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. He may be contacted at khecteman@cfbf.com.)

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

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