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Canal break cuts off water to farms, ranches

Issue Date: May 11, 2011
By Ching Lee
Placer County rancher Carol Scheiber says a break in the Bear River Canal has left her with no irrigation water to grow summer pasture for her cattle, and that the pasture is already starting to dry out.
Photo/Ching Lee
Damage to this 40-foot section of the Bear River Canal near Colfax has disrupted service to many Placer County water customers. Pacific Gas and Electric Co. has begun preliminary repair work, with a permanent fix scheduled for completion by the end of June, according to PG&E spokesman Paul Moreno.

Despite plentiful rainfall this year that has replenished the state's water supply, many farmers and ranchers in Placer County face a major water shortage after a landslide broke a portion of a canal that feeds water to parts of the region.

Effects of the Bear River Canal failure, which occurred on April 19 in a remote area below Rollins Reservoir near Colfax, have been most severe on untreated irrigation water customers such as farmers and ranchers, many of whom have already completed their spring planting or have made significant investments in this year's crop.

Rice farmer Nick Greco says his irrigation water has been completely cut off. He farms in Lincoln, an area that's been one of the hardest hit by the canal break because it sits at the end of the supply line. With no water, he is forced to fallow his rice acreage after already preparing his ground, which cost him fuel, labor and time—all of which he will not get back, he said.

"The sad thing is the price of rice is pretty strong," he said. "We all thought there was going to be plenty of water because of the big snowpack. That's why I didn't buy a lot of crop insurance. It's a tough deal."

The Bear River Canal, maintained by Pacific Gas & Electric Co., is a major supply artery for the Placer County Water Agency, which supplies nearly 4,000 irrigation water customers. The Nevada Irrigation District also gets water through the canal for service to some 800 irrigation water users.

The canal was carrying about 400 cubic feet of water per second when an estimated 40-foot section of it ruptured. PCWA has since declared a water shortage emergency, which PG&E officials say will help to expedite the permitting process needed to begin work on repairing the canal.

Meanwhile, rotating outages and conservation measures have been in place to stretch the limited water supply to the affected areas. PCWA is also diverting water from other sources, including the American River, at a higher cost to supplement flows to its system.

Placer County Agricultural Commissioner Josh Huntsinger said the water supply crisis has had a "significant impact" on Placer County agriculture, which includes a large number of smaller-scale farms that grow a diverse mix of tree crops, vineyards and vegetables.

He estimates some 2,300 acres of rice, the county's No. 1 crop, won't be planted this year due to the water shortage. Altogether, the county will lose at least $10 million in agricultural production from unplanted acreage. Any future losses from reduced production or crop damage are still unknown, he said.

"It's really critical timing because a lot of growers are right in the middle of planting and they're not willing to gamble on making that investment if they don't know whether they're going to have any water this year or not," he said.

"The situation, unfortunately, will only grow worse as the weather warms and water demands rise," said David Breninger, PCWA general manager.

Carol Scheiber, a rancher in Lincoln and president of the Placer County Farm Bureau, laments that recent warm temperatures and strong winds have already begun to dry out her pasture. Her cow-calf operation depends on irrigated pasture for summer feed, she said, and she will have no new irrigation water until the breached canal is fixed.

"Right now, we're going to feed everything that we have that's green," she said. "Once that's eaten off, of course it won't come back without water, so we'll have to supplement with hay."

She said the grass on her pasture will probably last her until the end of the month, at which time she will have to buy hay, a huge expense at current prices. To stretch her feed, Scheiber said she will have to sell some of her cattle early and earn a lower price for them.

The county's commercial nurseries also are hurting, Huntsinger said. Nursery operators who produce tree fruit stock say they may not be able to grow any new trees this year, and those with ornamentals say they'll be put out of business for the year if they don't have water to keep their plants alive, he said.

"This would be a huge impact to them economically and also a good portion of their work force, because nursery stock production is extremely labor intensive. They have a big pool of workers that they may have to lay off," he said.

Although the county's crop production may suffer from the water cutbacks, Huntsinger said he hopes growers will get enough water to maintain their orchards and other permanent crops.

"It's a very ironic situation in that we have an extremely wet year and yet we're going to have drought conditions," he said. "What needs to happen immediately is some sort of a temporary fix, which gets some water going across that canal. It sounds like the ball is in PG&E's court to get going on fixing the canal."

Repairs to the canal have been complicated by the site's steep terrain. PG&E officials have indicated in public meetings they plan to restore some water through a temporary bypass by early June, with a permanent fix planned for the end of June.

Cindy Fake, a University of California Cooperative Extension farm advisor for Placer County, said she thinks the situation can be manageable for growers if they have a plan to deal with the water shortage. She pointed out farmers have been aided by the wet spring, which allowed plenty of moisture to be stored in the soil, particularly in areas where the soil is heavy clay.

"That doesn't mean that it isn't going to be a problem for producers," she said, noting that those who farm on decomposed granite soil, which drains rapidly, will have very little water storage. "They'll need to develop strategies now for when it gets hotter in case it takes longer to fix the break. If this goes on until mid-July, which is peak demand for water, then it may become a real issue."

She's been advising farmers to find other ways to store water—whether it's in a pond or large storage tanks—and to increase water efficiency. For permanent crops, keeping cover crops mowed will reduce water use, she said. Also, mulching will lower soil temperatures and maintain humidity and moisture in the soil, thereby reducing plant stress during water outages.

Gordon Poulsen, who grows a variety of fruits and vegetables in Penryn, says he has not been severely impacted by the outages yet but is very concerned about losing water as hot temperatures set in. He farms on decomposed granite soil and has no other source of water or storage except for a domestic well, which does not produce enough water for irrigation.

With farmers markets starting at the end of this month, Poulsen said he's finished planting his vegetables, most of which are in a fragile state and can't tolerate being dry.

Karin Sinclair, who raises poultry, sheep and cattle in Penryn and Newcastle, does have a pond for storage but says when her water is turned back on, there is hardly enough to keep her pasture green and feed her livestock, let alone fill the pond.

That is a concern, she said, because her pond is an important water source for the local fire department, which uses it yearly to put out fires. With all the vegetation growth created by abundant spring rains, the risk of fires will be very high this year, she added.

(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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