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‘A blessing’: Storms help bolster aquifers, snowpack

Issue Date: February 3, 2021
By Kevin Hecteman and Ching Lee

An atmospheric river brought much-needed rain to the Central Coast last week. Farmers and ranchers say more is needed—just maybe not all at once.

"Where I'm at, we got 5 inches in about a 60-hour period," said Tom Ikeda, who grows vegetables in the Arroyo Grande Valley of San Luis Obispo County.

"It wasn't a flash rain where you get a lot of runoff," Ikeda said. "This soaked into the ground, so it should help with leaching salts. Hopefully, especially with subsequent rains, it'll help recharge the aquifer. I don't think it was enough of a soaking to start recharging the aquifer—I think it's going to take subsequent rain."

Four days after the rain ended, Ikeda said, he was able to get back into some of his fields; others will take a while—perhaps a month, barring more rain. Winds that accompanied the storm last Wednesday accounted for more direct effects on leaves, Ikeda said.

The storms also provided a big boost to the meager Sierra Nevada snowpack. In a week's time, the average snow-water content rose from 6.3 inches to 11.8 inches, or from 40% of average to 68%.

Kevin Merrill, a Santa Maria vineyard manager, reported about 3 1/2 inches of rain in his neighborhood.

"I think the ground was so dry that it soaked up every bit of it," he said.

"As far as water supply goes, it's got to be helping our reservoirs here," said Merrill, who serves on the California Farm Bureau Board of Directors. "Anything north of Santa Barbara, it's all borne in the ground—that's helping us there. So I can say it's a blessing all the way around."

As of Jan. 31, Lake Cachuma in Santa Barbara County stood at 64% of capacity and 79% of average for the end of January, according to the California Department of Water Resources.

Gov. Gavin Newsom declared a disaster in San Luis Obispo and Monterey counties last week, citing mainly the washout of a section of Highway 1, about 15 miles below Big Sur.

Heavy rainfall in the burn scar of the River Fire triggered one large debris flow that affected ranchette properties, said Norm Groot, Monterey County Farm Bureau executive director, but the flow appeared to have gone into an area that already was carved out for water flow between farm fields.

Though flooding occurred in some fields, such as due to standing water, most agricultural fields in the region were OK, he said. Other debris flows south of Salinas did not affect farm fields in a significant way, he added, noting that "very minimal crops" are in fields this time of year, with the bulk of planting activities usually starting in mid- to late February.

"Overall, most are grateful for the rain, even though it was a lot and heavy at times," Groot said, adding that nearly 10 inches of precipitation in the Santa Lucia Mountains and Big Sur area will drain off into two reservoirs, "greatly improving their storage capacity" that had been at 21% and 15% prior to the storm.

Richard Smith, University of California Cooperative Extension farm advisor for Monterey County, said rain always affects planting schedules in the Salinas Valley, because farmers plant every day to ensure a constant supply in late spring when harvest begins.

"The growers are skilled at working around the weather, as long as we get a dry spell," he said, noting that farmers leave fields laser-leveled, which helps with drainage, and peaked beds can be quickly worked for planting.

The rain did not impede harvest of sweet baby broccoli in Chualar and Gonzales, according to Rick Harris, harvest manager for Mesa Packing in the Salinas Valley. He said even though fields became muddy, "the crops don't wait for a sunny day" when they're ready.

With storms forecast, he said many fields were planted prior to the rain, adding that he does not expect delays to crops, as the three-week planting window during winter months gives plenty of cushion.

"This rain was a blessing," Harris said. "We got a lot of it in a short amount of time, but the ground was so dry, it was like a sponge; it just soaked it all up."

In Santa Cruz County, berry grower Tom Am Rhein said even though the region received "a lot of water" last week, he did not experience "any big issues" from it. He noted the windstorm that came through nearly two weeks ago and started new fires did more damage than the rain, as strong winds tore up hoop houses and plastic over strawberry beds.

"Given the amount of rain that we had, I think things are in pretty good shape here," he said. "We need the water. We were way behind on our rainfall. This is a beneficial rain for us."

Phil McGrath, who farms a variety of fruits and vegetables in Ventura County, said the amount of rain his area had received so far has not been enough to quench the region's multi-year drought. With reports that a storm was coming last week, he said many farmers were harvesting days before to get crops out of fields, but the downpour never materialized.

"It's going to be a terrible drought year," he said. "We're probably looking at the worst drought year ever in Ventura County."

Oleg Daugovish, UCCE farm advisor for Ventura County, said the only impact from the rain he's seen to row crops is the usual mud restricting entry to fields, and strawberry fruit damage.

(Kevin Hecteman and Ching Lee are assistant editors of Ag Alert.)

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

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