As California Rainy Season Ends, Farmers Foresee Withered Fields

California is entering its fourth year of drought as its rainy season ends with blue skies and brown hillsides from San Francisco to Los Angeles, threatening crops and livestock in the most productive agricultural region.

Hopes for a wetter-than-usual winter to replenish reservoirs drained by three years of drought subsided with the end of March, as a dry spring left San Francisco with 89 percent of its usual rainfall and Los Angeles with 64 percent, according to the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration. Snowpack in the Sierra Nevada, which supplies California’s farms and urban centers, stood at just 6 percent of normal.

The two largest reservoirs supplying most of California’s 39 million residents were at 40 percent of capacity, while farmers in the interior faced decisions on whether to walk away from fields of rice, citrus trees and tomatoes.

“The situation is much worse than last year,” said Bob Blakely, vice president of California Citrus Mutual, by telephone from Exeter, California. “Not only are the reservoirs already dried, we can’t expect the traditional snowpack to melt and fill them later in the year.”

About 80 percent of California’s water supply goes toward its $48.8 billion industry producing dairy, beef, eggs, fruits, nuts and vegetables. California is the top agricultural state in the U.S. and its San Joaquin Valley, sandwiched between coastal hills and the Sierra Nevada, is the most productive agricultural region in the world.

Fewer Tomatoes

The lack of water, and particularly the decline in Sierra runoff used to supply farms and cities during the dry months between April and November, means farmers will plant fewer tomatoes, remove some vineyards, grow less feed for dairy and beef cows and take other measures likely to reduce supply and drive up costs, said Mike Wade, executive director of the California Farm Water Coalition in Sacramento.

“I think the industry as a whole will likely contract a little,” he said. “While we won’t see tomatoes go away, there may be less planted.”

Cannon Michael, 43, a sixth-generation farmer, said he plans to leave fallow about 2,630 acres of his family’s 10,400 acres of cropland near Los Banos, in the San Joaquin Valley.

He said his farm is mostly focusing this year on growing tomatoes and a little bit of cotton. Michael won’t plant any onions, “may or may not” plant melons and hasn’t planted any alfalfa this year or last, he said.

‘No Snowpack’

“There’s absolutely no snowpack,” he said. “I think it’s going to be a really, really bad situation. We don’t have any bank account because of the snow. If it stays dry one more year, it’s going to be a disaster because we don’t have a bank account.”

While April may bring some rain in parts of California, it’s unlikely to compensate for another below-average winter, said Brett Whitin, a hydrologic forecaster at the California Nevada River Forecast Center in Sacramento.

Quantifying the drought can be difficult because of changes California has undergone in the past century and lack of record-keeping in the 19th century and earlier. In terms of climatological data, the current era has no rival.

“It was the warmest February on record; it was the warmest January and February on record; it was the warmest winter on record,” said Mike Brewer of the National Climatic Data Center in Asheville, North Carolina.

In addition to those marks, which go back to 1895, California has also had its warmest 12-month and 24-month periods on record, Brewer said.

Far Below Normal

Snowpacks, which feed reservoirs in spring, range from 8 to 10 percent of normal throughout the state, he said.

On top of that, records have been set for the lack of any kind of precipitation around California, in what should have been its rainy season, Brewer said.

“The whole state is in bad shape,” Brewer said.

Downtown San Francisco received no precipitation in January and 1.47 inches (3.7 centimeters) in February, 7.63 inches below what it normally would have gotten in the first two months of any year, the National Weather Service said.

Across the west, snowcover is lagging behind the 10-year average, according to the National Operational Hydrologic Remote Sensing Center in Chanhassen, Minnesota.

“In the last 10 years, we have not seen these extreme conditions,” said Carrie Olheiser, operations lead at the center, which tracks snowcover in the U.S. and parts of Canada.

Lake Mead

Lake Mead, which provides 90 percent of the drinking water for metropolitan Las Vegas and is fed by mountain snow runoff into the Colorado River, stands at 40 percent of capacity. In addition to providing drinking water in Nevada, California and Arizona, Lake Mead supplies farms in California’s Imperial Valley east of San Diego. Across the 248-square-mile (642-square-kilometer) lake, a chalk-white band in the shoreline rising 130 feet above the water level shows the water’s retreat from its 1983 high point.

There’s about a 20 percent chance of Lake Mead hitting levels by next February that could force conservation measures, said Daniel Bunk, river operations manager for the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation. Under such a scenario, farmers would trump cities according to treaties and compacts dating to 1922.

“If L.A. or Phoenix want more water, they have to buy it, or make arrangements with the agricultural users,” Bunk said in an interview in Boulder City, Nevada, near Lake Mead. “The ag users were here first.”

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