Western drought worsens and widens

by Ron Sterk
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KANSAS CITY — The worst drought in four decades that has fueled concerns about water availability in California appears to be spreading north and east, according to the latest statistics from the National Drought Mitigation Center.

“Despite the arrival of rain and high-elevation snow in the Northwest, drought persisted or intensified across the region,” the N.D.M.C. said in its Jan. 14 National Drought Summary. “The most notable drought increases were from central California into the Pacific Northwest.”

See the N.D.M.C.’s U.S. “drought monitor” at droughtmonitor.unl.edu.


 “Farther south, a disappointing water year continued, with warm, dry weather firmly entrenched from central and southern California into the Great Basin,” the N.D.M.C. said. “Extreme drought expanded across much of central and northern California into northwestern Nevada. Soil moisture across the northern two-thirds of California remained in very short supply.”

Overall, the United States is faring pretty well. In comments from Jan. 9, the N.D.M.C. said 33% of the contiguous 48 states were in drought, up from 31% a week earlier and from 30% on Dec. 10, “which was the least area in drought for any week of 2013 and the smallest drought coverage since Dec. 27, 2011.”

But the West, especially California, hasn’t fared so well, with record dry conditions in 2013 persisting into 2014.

“The new seasonal outlook from the National Weather Service doesn’t give any hope through April, which is the end of the wet season” said David Salmon, owner of Weather Derivatives, a Belton, Mo.-based agricultural and energy weather consulting service. “If it doesn’t rain or snow before April, it’s not going to,” he said. Mr. Salmon noted that snow pack in the Sierra Nevada mountains, which are a major source of California’s water supply, was only 12% of the 10-year average.

Drought area increased from 38% to 88% in Oregon between Dec. 10 and Jan. 7, while Washington went from no drought depiction on Dec. 10 to 55% of the state on Jan. 7, the N.D.M.C. said.

“Western drought concerns are most acute in those areas — including California — moving deeper into a third consecutive year of drought,” said Brad Rippey, meteorologist in the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Office of the Chief Economist. “According to the state Department of Water Resources, California’s 154 intrastate reservoirs were collectively brimming with water (125% of average storage) on Nov. 30, 2011. In subsequent years, as drought moved past the one and two year marks, storage fell to 97% and 74% of average, respectively, on Nov. 30, 2012, and 2013. Without a sudden reversal in California’s dry weather pattern from January to March 2014, there will be little snow in the Sierra Nevada to melt and feed the reservoir system.”

The California State Board of Food and Agriculture met with the California Department of Water Resources and the State Water Resources Control Board in early January to discuss water transfers and drought preparedness.

“California’s farmers and ranchers need to prepare for a potentially significant drought year,” said Karen Ross, secretary of the C.D.F.A. “We are looking at scenarios in which considerable land fallowing and unsustainable groundwater overdraft will occur.”

The C.D.F.A. said initial water allocation levels released for the State Water Project in November were “among the lowest on record” at 5% (thus 95% short of needs). The department said nine of California’s 12 major lakes and reservoirs were below 50% capacity, with Folsom Lake, northeast of Sacramento, at a low of 20%, which was the lowest in the lake’s 60-year history.

“We are sounding the alarm on behalf of the agricultural industry,” said Craig McNamara, president of the C.D.F.A.

In a Jan. 16 report, The Weather Channel said, “The weather pattern along the West coast this week is one that was all too common last year and led to a record dry 2013 in California. A dominant ridge is acting as a block to any precipitation in the Golden State. Not only does this so-called ridge prevent Pacific weather systems from affecting California with rain and snow, it’s also leading to offshore winds, record high temperatures and a high fire danger this week.”

In its Jan. 12 weekly crop weather bulletin, the C.D.F.A. and the state’s U.S.D.A. field office said, “Dry land fields (of small grains) suffered from drought conditions that have caused some fields not to germinate. The prolonged lack of rain was of concern to (fruit) growers across the state. Drought conditions persisted across the state with extreme conditions throughout most of the San Joaquin Valley and Central coast.”

The immediate problem with be crops that aren’t irrigated, such as some winter wheat, Mr. Salmon said.

California’s central valley, which includes the Sacramento Valley and the San Joaquin Valley, comprises the heart of the state’s agricultural output with about 230 different crops grown. The top production in dollar value includes dairy, grapes, walnuts, almonds, cherries, apples, apricots, citrus fruits, asparagus, fresh and processing tomatoes, hay, cattle, corn, cotton and more. San Joaquin County alone accounts for 49% of California’s asparagus crop by value, 45% of cherries, 42% of apples, 34% of corn for grain and 20% of walnuts.

“Drought could cause the fast-growing strawberry industry in California to experience a bit of a lull in production this year, as planted acreage is expected to decrease slightly,” the Capital Press said in a recent story. California Strawberry Commission surveys indicated strawberry area for 2014 at 39,073 acres, down 4% from 2013. California strawberry production has been record high in seven of the last eight years. The state accounts for about 85% of U.S. strawberry production.

“State officials say this year’s drought is the worst in nearly four decades, and they caution that growers’ excessive use of groundwater can lead to overdrafts that permanently damage basins,” the Capital Press said.

“With many valley farmers having already been advised to expect water supplies of zero to just 10%, even if it does start raining, we should expect that well over 500,000 acres of valley farmland will be fallow in 2014,” Lance W. Johnson, a water resources engineer, said in a recent issue of AgAlert, the California Farm Bureau Federations weekly newspaper.

“As dry conditions continue, California farmers are expected to plant fewer row crops such as cotton and processing tomatoes in order to save water for their trees and vines, but seed and transplant producers of those crops say it is still too early to know just how deep the reductions will be,” according to another issue of AgAlert. Processing tomato tonnage declined 7.6% in 2013 due to beet curlytop virus, so producers would have preferred to increase plantings by 5% to 10%, the report indicated. Some production may be shifted to areas that are expected to have better water supply.

Almonds also are a major concern with California accounting for more than 80% of global production. Tight water supplies last year resulted in smaller almonds and a 2% decline in production from 2012.

California ranks first in value of agricultural production due to its No.1 ranking in dairy production and high-value nut, fruit and vegetable crops.

California media outlets reported Jan. 13 that California governor Jerry Brown “would soon declare an official drought designation for California to help maximize water resources across the state.” The last time a statewide drought emergency was declared was 2009. Some municipalities, including Mendocino county and Sacramento, already have invoked local emergencies to restrict water use because of the drought.

Mr. Salmon noted the groups dealing with California’s water try to manage the supply on a three-year basis, which means the effects of the drought may not be as bad as they could be if they saved some water back, but it’s still a “bad deal.”

“It literally can’t get fixed this year. It’s not going to be okay,” Mr. Salmon said.
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