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Rain and snow welcomed in California, but drought situation remains dire

Northern California received significant amounts of much-needed rainfall during the last week of March and first day of April, with Central California receiving smaller amounts. The central and northern Sierra Mountains received significant snowfall as well.

With California in its third year of what has been called the worst drought in a century, and with many farms already facing severe water cuts and dropping water tables, growers welcomed the rain and snow, but while it will improve the water situation somewhat in the state, it won’t come close to making up the shortfall.

Snowpack levels in the Sierras, even after the past week’s heavy snowfall, remained at about one-third of normal, water tables continue to drop, some wells are going dry, and some farmers continue to receive severe cuts to their surface water, with allocations as low as zero percent in many cases.

The rains caused some disruption to crops along the central coast. In Watsonville, rains disrupted the strawberry harvest, for example. With a little more rain in the forecast, “we’re not really going to have anything for a little while” out of Watsonville, Fritz Koontz, managing partner of Santa Cruz Berry Farming Co. LLC in Watsonville told The Produce News April 2.

However, most of California’s strawberries were being harvested in Oxnard, which received little rainfall, and in Santa Maria, which got only a modest amount, “like a third of an inch most recently,” Koontz said.

Santa Cruz does not have strawberries in Oxnard but does in Santa Maria. “We’re still picking” there, he said, “but having to clean up a little bit. But we need the rain. It is helping the plants.”

In Watsonville, which was not yet “much of a factor” in the deal, the strawberry fields are “getting good benefit from the rain.” At this point in the season, “more is better,” he said. “I think Watsonville could have some fruit for Easter,” depending on what the weather is like in the weeks ahead.

In the Central Valley, “we’ll take whatever we can get,” Bob Blakely, director of industry relations for California Citrus Mutual, said April 2. “We have been getting showers moving through since last week and over the weekend. They are saying there is a slight chance of scattered showers through today, and that is going to pretty much close the window on this event,” with no more rainfall in the short range forecast and a warming and drying trend expected.

The added snow in the mountains could potentially help. “As it melts, it will go into the reservoirs, and if the regulatory agencies will back off of the releases and hold that water, that is certainly going to help.” Whether the citrus growers along the east side of the valley benefit directly or not, “it will certainly help move some water through the delta” and into the Central Valley.

However, if the drought continues and the regulatory situation does not improve, the outlook is dire for permanent crops on both sides of the valley.

On the east side, where the Friant-Kern canal that runs the length of the valley has a zero allocation, some growers are already “severely impacted this year. It would be very unlikely that they could bring a crop to maturity if they have absolutely no water,” Blakely said.

While the trees would probably survive, “they would be put in such decline that it would probably take them a couple of years to recover if we got back to a normal water situation.” With another year of drought and no water allocation, “those trees would probably die.” Older orchards are already being pushed out so any available water can be diverted to younger, more productive orchards. Growers are having to make “some very hard decisions.”

A major rain event a month earlier could have helped more, except that most of it was allowed to run off into the ocean rather than being put into the canal system to benefit farms and cities. “That is water that could have irrigated several thousand acres or taken care of several million homes,” said Blakely.

Ronald Jacobsma, general manager of the Friant Water Authority said there was currently no water flow in the Friant-Kern Canal and only about 100 million acre feet behind the Friant Dam. Friant’s obligations to water exchange contractors, upon whom growers rely to purchase water at high prices when their own allotments or their own wells are inadequate, totaled about 300,000 acre feet. “So we are at sub-zero by about 200,000 acre feet.”

The Friant Water Authority is “trying to close that gap,” Jacobsma said, but “right now it looks like it is still a long shot.” More rain and snow would help that happen. “If we can get close to 200,000 acre feet in our system with the programs our guys have historically used to move groundwater around, we can probably keep most of our permanent plantings alive,” albeit with diminished crops.

But even additional precipitation will not make that happen unless there is greater flexibility on the part of certain government agencies in how the water is used, he said.