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California drought continues with no relief in sight

As the Northeast got hit with a paralyzing snow storm just a day after the calendar turned to 2014, the first California snow survey of the year revealed what everyone already knew: the state is suffering one of its worst droughts in history -- and there is no rain in the forecast.

While researchers were in the field physically putting instruments in the snow on Jan. 3 to gauge depth and water content, electronic data had already revealed the water content statewide to be 20 percent of normal.

California's water year runs from Oct. 1 to Sept. 30, and the first three months of this water year has produced the third-driest start in history.

The calendar year is even worse, as much of the rain and snow for 2012-13 fell in late 2012. The 2013 calendar year has been the driest in history for much of the state, including San Francisco and Los Angeles.

Ted Thomas, information officer for the California Department of Water Resources, told The Produce News Jan. 3 that San Francisco received only 5.6 inches of rain in 2013 compared to the 150-year annual average of 23.65 inches. Los Angeles had 3.44 inches of rain last year compared to an annual average over the past 100 years of almost 15 inches of rain.

Thomas said the first three months of the water year typically deliver about one-half of the annual rainfall. For San Francisco this year, those months have yielded only about 10 percent of the average annual rainfall.

This all adds up to a very dry year and very limited water deliveries from the state and federal water projects.

DWR has currently estimated that it will deliver 5 percent of the requested supplies through the State Water Project. Last year, customers received 35 percent of requested supply, on average. As a point of reference, the state rarely delivers 100 percent of requested supplies, but is typically above the 50 percent mark.

Despite the gloomy forecast, fruit and vegetable growers are not yet singing the blues.

Steve Smith of the Turlock Fruit Co. is a large melon growers and shipper in Turlock, CA, which sits in the heart of the San Joaquin Valley. He does not expect the summer's melon acreage to be affected negatively because of the drought. He said some areas have senior water rights and that is where is the high-value crops, such as melons, will be planted.

"There will probably be less cotton and the wheat won't get any water, but I don't anticipate a decrease in melon acreage," he said.

He explained that wheat and other field crops are used as rotation crops, and this year they will be grown with little or no water. Growers, instead, will use their water allocations to irrigate their permanent tree crops and their high-value vegetable crops, and to the extent that they can they will move the annual crops to land that has access to sufficient water.

Ron Ratto, president of Ratto Bros. in Modesto, CA, said it all depends upon where a farm is and what water sources a grower has.

"We have wells on all of our ranches and right now we do have water," said Ratto. "Tomorrow could be a different story, but we are OK right now."

Ratto indicated that the underground aquifers could fail to produce if no rain comes to replenish them, but his company is moving forward anticipating a relatively normal year despite the lack of water.

There are pockets of California farmland that do rely 100 percent on federal or state water, so there will no doubt be cutbacks if the drought continues. But the amount and severity of them won't be known for many months.

Farmers tend to be optimistic and it is interesting to note that the second driest first three months of the year -- which occurred in 1960 -- saw record rains in the spring, bringing the yearly total well above average.