Recent rains easing California drought conditions

by Ron Sterk
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KANSAS CITY — California produce growers, especially spring and summer vegetable producers, as well as tree nut growers and mixed agricultural farmers, finally are seeing some relief from nearly two years of severe drought in California.

Rainfall for the past week already has begun to refill low reservoirs, said David Salmon, owner of Weather Derivatives in Kansas City.

"It could rain for another two weeks and the pendulum could swing to excess moisture," he said.

Through January, water conditions in northern California appeared bleak after nearly two years of below-normal rainfall as all-important reservoirs, sources of critical irrigation water, dropped to the lowest levels since 1992. Water for irrigation was restricted, with only 40% of normal allocations delivered in 2008. Deliveries of water from the California Department of Water Resources dipped as low as 15% late last year.

Many of the country’s fruits and vegetables are grown in the state’s Central valley, especially spring and fall lettuce crops and melons. It’s also a key growing area for rice, tree nuts and fruits.

"Dry weather continued during January as drought conditions began to threaten fruit and nut orchards in the San Joaquin Valley," the U.S. Department of Agriculture said in its Feb. 10 Crop Production report, indicating the extent of the drought was reaching beyond annual crops. Some farmers abandoned annual crops to keep nut trees alive with limited irrigation water.

Whether the current rainfall will totally end the drought remains to be seen, with mixed outlooks from weather experts.

"Moderate to heavy precipitation was widespread across the southern Cascades, the Sierra Nevada, the coastal regions of California and the southwestern California mountains, with amounts of 3 to 6 inches fairly common in southwestern California," said Richard Tinker in the Feb. 10 National Drought Summary from the Climate Prediction Center of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. "However, since this was the first substantial precipitation across the state in several weeks, and because reservoir levels remain low and higher-elevation snowpack is still considerably below normal, drought classification improvements were limited.

"For the state of California as a whole, combined reservoir storage has dropped to levels typically observed only once every 10 to 20 years in February, and some areas reliant on relatively small-scale water supply systems are bracing for mandatory water usage cutbacks for the coming spring and summer."

Mr. Salmon said he thinks the rainfall received, and additional moisture on the way, will significantly improve the situation in California.

"I think they will have plenty of water," Mr. Salmon said. "The rainfall should be enough to break the drought."

As with meteorologists’ forecasts, recovery of crops also appears mixed.

"Rains last week encouraged the growth of winter vegetables," the California Department of Food and Agriculture (C.D.F.A.) said in its joint weekly crop weather bulletin with the U.S.D.A., covering the Feb. 2-8 period. "Rain this week greatly improved conditions. Irrigation was shut off in some areas due to rain."

At the same time, the C.D.F.A. said, "Drought began to threaten (fruit and nut) orchards in the San Joaquin Valley. Non-irrigated rangeland remained in poor condition. Recent rains helped increase rangeland growth, but more precipitation was needed. Supplemental feeding of hay and nutrients continued."

While the state continues to manage the use of its limited water supply, the California Department of Water Resources is in the process of updating its five-year Water Plan. In the latest highlights of the plan, the department compared the drought to one in 1977, but noted that the state’s population was 75% larger today, water supplies were reduced and court decisions restricted water movement.

This article can also be found in the digital edition of Food Business News, February 17, 2009, starting on Page 22. Click here to search that archive.

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