Looming 2014 California water crisis strikes fear in farmers | Farm Press Blog

It does not take long for a conversation with a California farmer to reach the topic of water. It has always been that way.

However, the topic strikes real fear like it has never before. California has faced numerous water crises, but nothing like this one.

Economically it could not come at a worse time. Harvests are at hand and for the most part, yields and prices across most all commodities are good. Amazing in some cases. There should be considerable optimism for 2014, but there’s trepidation because many producers do not know if they will have water to grow crops next season.

Secondly, California is largely permanent crops, orchards, vineyards and groves that cannot be fallowed. They are either irrigated or die at a cost of billions.

Federal and start water purveyors are telling famers to expect zero allocations next spring and maybe zero for the entire season. Granted, most farmers who have access to surface water also have wells. Many farmers irrigate with wells only. However, the idea of restricting pumping from long overdrafted aquifers is being considered.

Unlike most states, California has virtually no governmental restrictions on groundwater pumping. However, California farmers have long realized Sacramento will someday at least try to regulate it. Local water agencies are now talking about regulating groundwater themselves to get ahead of the regulatory scenario. It’s not unprecedented. Westlands Water District did it in 2006 when there was plenty of surface water for delivery. Tom Birmingham, Westlands district manager, has been quoted as saying the district is looking at regulating pumping again in 2014.

Water is getting so expensive; farmers are considering selling what water they have rather than farm. Offers of $1,200 per acre foot for water this year are common. That is five or six times what it cost the farmer. However, there were few takers because there was no water to sell. However, selling water may be easier suggested than realized. Rules — old and new — within districts often preclude a farmer from selling water allocations or even moving water around within a district.

If a Central Valley farmer has water, either via grandfathered water rights or good groundwater, he is being courted by garlic, onion and tomato packers. Tomato processers are reportedly offering $90 to $100 per ton 2014 tomato contracts. This year’s contract was $70. The other reason for those prices is a disease-shortened 2013 crop that reduced inventory in a good sales market.

The impact of this drought has already been felt in fallowed open fields this season. There are fewer jobs and lost farm income. Growers have not had water for post-harvest irrigation of trees and vines, which has a significant impact on the next crop. And the well water that farmers have relied heavily upon this year has not been the best quality in many cases. This could also have significant impact on future crops.

I have written countless water articles over the years, mostly under the “crisis” category. However, as one farmer told me, “We have survived so far.” California producers are definitely resourceful, but many are feeling like they have no play yet for next season. It will be a long winter of looking skyward for relief.

Weather Wilts Idaho Hay Production | MARKETING content from Hay & Forage Grower

Hot, dry summer weather has severely crimped hay production in parts of Idaho so far in 2013, reports Glenn Shewmaker, forage specialist with University of Idaho Extension.

Dryland growers in the southern part of the state were especially hard hit during first-crop harvest. “In some cases, they didn’t bother to cut,” says Shewmaker. “For many who did cut, the production was marginal. It wasn’t really economical to bale.”

Irrigators’ annual hay production this year will depend on their location, he says. “In a couple of the smaller (water) basins, they’re already out of water. Some were shut off at the end of June. Others are likely to see their water allotments severely limited.”

On the Snake River, nearly all growers have had their allotments reduced. “But most of them will be able to get through to the end of the season, and production should be normal for the majority of acres,” says Shewmaker. Statewide, he looks for hay production to be about 90% of normal this year.

Dairy-quality alfalfa has been bringing $220-230/ton at the stack. Feeder hay undamaged by rain is fetching around $200/ton. “It’s really not much of a spread. As much as anything else, it shows that dairies still don’t have much money to spend on hay.”

Prospects for plentiful corn silage supplies in the state could hold a lid on alfalfa hay prices heading into fall. “A lot of people have planted corn this year. And it’s looking good because of all the hot weather we’ve had. As long as we have the water, we should see some good corn silage yields. That will lead more dairy producers to maximize corn silage in their rations as a substitute for alfalfa.”


Crops withstand weather extremes | capitalpress.com

The weather in California so far this summer has been a study in extremes, though most crops seem to be taking the fluctuations in stride.

A brief heat wave in early June gave way to milder temperatures and then a four-day rainstorm June 23-27 that would have been impressive even in February. The system dumped as much as 8 inches of rain in parts of Shasta County, said Jim Mathews, the National Weather Service’s lead forecaster here.

Now the summer heat has returned, with afternoon highs in the northern Sacramento Valley expected to remain in triple digits through most of July, according to AccuWeather’s long-range forecasts.

“It looks like we’re in for a prolonged heat wave,” Mathews said, noting that temperatures were expected to peak at 106 in Sacramento and 108 in Redding.

The federal Climate Prediction Center anticipates the summer will be warmer than normal throughout the West, where drought conditions are expected to persist. Precipitation is expected to be below normal in the Pacific Northwest and far Northern California, according to the agency.

The conditions come after low pressure over the northeastern Pacific Ocean produced a soaker that set records for this time of year in some areas. The 0.11 inches that fell at the Sacramento airport on June 25 was enough for a record for the date, Mathews said. Shasta Dam recorded more than 3 inches from June 23-26, U.S. Bureau of Reclamation spokeswoman Sheri Harral said.

“Basically we are operating everything as normal,” Harral said, adding the storm didn’t prompt additional releases from Shasta Lake. The lake was at 80 percent of average storage for this time of year as of June 28.

Crops have withstood the conditions. For instance, the rain was a benefit for olive trees, providing “a little refreshment to knock the dust off the trees,” said Adin Hester, president of the Olive Growers Council of California in Visalia.

Not enough rain fell in the Central Coast region to bother strawberries, said Chris Christian, vice president of marketing for the California Strawberry Commission in Watsonville.

“No one was expecting any real impact from it,” she said. “Now that we have unseasonably warm weather, we expect that production will pick up here quite quickly.”

Likewise, the heat could hasten development of nut crops, said Joe Connell, a University of California Cooperative Extension farm advisor in Chico.

“With almonds being used to a hot, dry climate, it probably will advance hull split, and it could accelerate pest populations,” Connell said. “As long as the growers irrigate well … we think we can handle the heat.”

2012-2013 rainfall totals

Here are the June and seasonal rainfall totals and comparisons to normal for selected California cities, according to the National Weather Service. The season ends June 30.

Redding: Month 1.58 inches (normal 0.67 inches); season 28.46 inches (normal 34.6 inches)

Eureka: Month 0.43 inches (normal 0.72 inches); season 32.31 inches (normal 40.3 inches)

Sacramento: Month 0.22 inches (normal 0.21 inches); season 15.2 inches (normal 18.52 inches)

Modesto: Month 0.07 inches (normal 0.12 inches); season 9.09 inches (normal 13.11 inches)

Salinas: Month 0.04 inches (normal 0.09 inches); season 8.97 inches (normal 12.83 inches)

Fresno: Month, trace inches (normal 0.21 inches); season 5.67 inches (normal 11.5 inches)

Reservoir levels

Here are the percentages of capacity for California reservoirs and comparisons to their seasonal averages as of midnight June 27, according to the Department of Water Resources California Data Exchange Center:

Trinity Lake: 75 percent of capacity; 86 percent of average

Shasta Lake: 66 percent; 80 percent

Lake Oroville: 73 percent; 88 percent

New Bullards Bar Reservoir: 77 percent; 89 percent

Folsom Lake: 69 percent; 81 percent

New Melones Reservoir: 52 percent; 83 percent

Millerton Lake: 78 percent; 98 percent

Pine Flat Reservoir: 37 percent; 53 percent

Lake Isabella: 16 percent; 29 percent

San Luis Reservoir: 22 percent; 32 percent


Wells Dry, Fertile Plains Turn to Dust – NYTimes.com

Wells Dry, Fertile Plains Turn to Dust


Near Garden City, Kan., the High Plains Aquifer is giving out.

Matthew Staver for The New York Times


May 19, 2013

HASKELL COUNTY, Kan. — Forty-nine years ago, Ashley Yost’s grandfather sank a well deep into a half-mile square of rich Kansas farmland. He struck an artery of water so prodigious that he could pump 1,600 gallons to the surface every minute.

Last year, Mr. Yost was coaxing just 300 gallons from the earth, and pumping up sand in order to do it. By harvest time, the grit had robbed him of $20,000 worth of pumps and any hope of returning to the bumper harvests of years past.

“That’s prime land,” he said not long ago, gesturing from his pickup at the stubby remains of last year’s crop. “I’ve raised 294 bushels of corn an acre there before, with water and the Lord’s help.” Now, he said, “it’s over.”

The land, known as Section 35, sits atop the High Plains Aquifer, a waterlogged jumble of sand, clay and gravel that begins beneath Wyoming and South Dakota and stretches clear to the Texas Panhandle. The aquifer’s northern reaches still hold enough water in many places to last hundreds of years. But as one heads south, it is increasingly tapped out, drained by ever more intensive farming and, lately, by drought.

Vast stretches of Texas and Kansas farmland lying over the High Plains Aquifer no longer support irrigation.

Vast stretches of Texas farmland lying over the aquifer no longer support irrigation. In west-central Kansas, up to a fifth of the irrigated farmland along a 100-mile swath of the aquifer has already gone dry. In many other places, there no longer is enough water to supply farmers’ peak needs during Kansas’ scorching summers.

And when the groundwater runs out, it is gone for good. Refilling the aquifer would require hundreds, if not thousands, of years of rains.

This is in many ways a slow-motion crisis — decades in the making, imminent for some, years or decades away for others, hitting one farm but leaving an adjacent one untouched. But across the rolling plains and tarmac-flat farmland near the Kansas-Colorado border, the effects of depletion are evident everywhere. Highway bridges span arid stream beds. Most of the creeks and rivers that once veined the land have dried up as 60 years of pumping have pulled groundwater levels down by scores and even hundreds of feet.

On some farms, big center-pivot irrigators — the spindly rigs that create the emerald circles of cropland familiar to anyone flying over the region — now are watering only a half-circle. On others, they sit idle altogether.

Two years of extreme drought, during which farmers relied almost completely on groundwater, have brought the seriousness of the problem home. In 2011 and 2012, the Kansas Geological Survey reports, the average water level in the state’s portion of the aquifer dropped 4.25 feet — nearly a third of the total decline since 1996.

And that is merely the average. “I know my staff went out and re-measured a couple of wells because they couldn’t believe it,” said Lane Letourneau, a manager at the State Agriculture Department’s water resources division. “There was a 30-foot decline.”

Kansas agriculture will survive the slow draining of the aquifer — even now, less than a fifth of the state’s farmland is irrigated in any given year — but the economic impact nevertheless will be outsized. In the last federal agriculture census of Kansas, in 2007, an average acre of irrigated land produced nearly twice as many bushels of corn, two-thirds more soybeans and three-fifths more wheat than did dry land.

Farmers will take a hit as well. Raising crops without irrigation is far cheaper, but yields are far lower. Drought is a constant threat: the last two dry-land harvests were all but wiped out by poor rains.

In the end, most farmers will adapt to farming without water, said Bill Golden, an agriculture economist at Kansas State University. “The revenue losses are there,” he said. “But they’re not as tremendously significant as one might think.”

Some already are. A few miles west of Mr. Yost’s farm, Nathan Kells cut back on irrigation when his wells began faltering in the last decade, and shifted his focus to raising dairy heifers — 9,000 on that farm, and thousands more elsewhere. At about 12 gallons a day for a single cow, Mr. Kells can sustain his herd with less water than it takes to grow a single circle of corn.

“The water’s going to flow to where it’s most valuable, whether it be industry or cities or feed yards,” he said. “We said, ‘What’s the higher use of the water?’ and decided that it was the heifer operation.”

The problem, others say, is that when irrigation ends, so do the jobs and added income that sustain rural communities.

“Looking at areas of Texas where the groundwater has really dropped, those towns are just a shell of what they once were,” said Jim Butler, a hydrogeologist and senior scientist at the Kansas Geological Survey.

The villain in this story is in fact the farmers’ savior: the center-pivot irrigator, a quarter- or half-mile of pipe that traces a watery circle around a point in the middle of a field. The center pivots helped start a revolution that raised farming from hardscrabble work to a profitable business.

Since the pivots’ debut some six decades ago, the amount of irrigated cropland in Kansas has grown to nearly three million acres, from a mere 250,000 in 1950. But the pivot irrigators’ thirst for water — hundreds and sometimes thousands of gallons a minute — has sent much of the aquifer on a relentless decline. And while the big pivots have become much more efficient, a University of California study earlier this year concluded that Kansas farmers were using some of their water savings to expand irrigation or grow thirstier crops, not to reduce consumption.

A shift to growing corn, a much thirstier crop than most, has only worsened matters. Driven by demand, speculation and a government mandate to produce biofuels, the price of corn has tripled since 2002, and Kansas farmers have responded by increasing the acreage of irrigated cornfields by nearly a fifth.

At an average 14 inches per acre in a growing season, a corn crop soaks up groundwater like a sponge — in 2010, the State Agriculture Department said, enough to fill a space a mile square and nearly 2,100 feet high.

Sorghum, or milo, gets by on a third less water, Kansas State University researchers say — and it, too, is in demand by biofuel makers. As Kansas’ wells peter out, more farmers are switching to growing milo on dry land or with a comparative sprinkle of irrigation water.

But as long as there is enough water, most farmers will favor corn. “The issue that often drives this is economics,” said David W. Hyndman, who heads Michigan State University’s geological sciences department. “And as long as you’ve got corn that’s $7, then a lot of choices get made on that.”

Of the 800 acres that Ashley Yost farmed last year in Haskell County, about 70 percent was planted in corn, including roughly 125 acres in Section 35. Haskell County’s feedlots — the county is home to 415,000 head of cattle — and ethanol plants in nearby Liberal and Garden City have driven up the price of corn handsomely, he said.

But this year he will grow milo in that section, and hope that by ratcheting down the speed of his pump, he will draw less sand, even if that means less water, too. The economics of irrigation, he said, almost dictate it.

“You’ve got $20,000 of underground pipe,” he said. “You’ve got a $10,000 gas line. You’ve got a $10,000 irrigation motor. You’ve got an $89,000 pivot. And you’re going to let it sit there and rot?

“If you can pump 150 gallons, that’s 150 gallons Mother Nature is not giving us. And if you can keep a milo crop alive, you’re going to do it.”

Mr. Yost’s neighbors have met the prospect of dwindling water in starkly different ways. A brother is farming on pivot half-circles. A brother-in-law moved most of his operations to Iowa. Another farmer is suing his neighbors, accusing them of poaching water from his slice of the aquifer.

A fourth grows corn with an underground irrigation system that does not match the yields of water-wasting center-pivot rigs, but is far thriftier in terms of water use and operating costs.

For his part, Mr. Yost continues to pump. But he also allowed that the day may come when sustaining what is left of the aquifer is preferable to pumping as much as possible.

Sitting in his Ford pickup next to Section 35, he unfolded a sheet of white paper that tracked the decline of his grandfather’s well: from 1,600 gallons a minute in 1964, to 1,200 in 1975, to 750 in 1976.

When the well slumped to 500 gallons in 1991, the Yosts capped it and drilled another nearby. Its output sank, too, from 1,352 gallons to 300 today.

This year, Mr. Yost spent more than $15,000 to drill four test wells in Section 35. The best of them produced 195 gallons a minute — a warning, he said, that looking further for an isolated pocket of water would be costly and probably futile.

“We’re on the last kick,” he said. “The bulk water is gone.”