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Slow water deliveries drag out rice planting season

Tim Hearden

Capital Press

Rice growers in California are slogging away at planting as the slow pace of water deliveries has them off to a late start. While planting is usually nearly finished by now, some growers expect to be planting into June.

WILLOWS, Calif. — The slow pace of water deliveries in California’s Sacramento Valley is making for a long, drawn-out rice planting season.

While most growers would be finishing up by now in a normal year, many have only recently started planting and the work could continue into June, some farmers say.

“Our ground work is going well but water availability is very poor,” said Larry Maben, a rice farmer here. “Even though Glenn Colusa (Irrigation District) ended up with a 75 percent allocation … we can’t get water to flood with down here. I should be two-thirds done but I’ve just started.”

Water is coming in a veritable trickle because exchange contractors along the river have agreed to shift their delivery schedules to maintain the right river temperatures for winter run salmon.

Federal officials announced last month that the exchange contractors’ allocations would be boosted from 40 percent to 75 percent, but deliveries would wait until May so that more water could be left in Shasta Lake to be used later in temperature-controlled releases.

Rice is typically planted between mid-April and mid-May, with harvests coming six months later. While some growers expected to leave some fields unplanted because of a lack of water, Maben said he intends to plant everything — eventually.

“We’re going to be planting into June, and we really don’t want to be doing that,” he said. “My original intention was to plant everything. I think I can still get it done, but it’s just going to be a long, slow process. The later you plant in springtime, the later your harvest in the fall.”

Leo LaGrande, a grower near Williams, Calif., said he expects to plant about 20 percent of his crop in June.

“It’s difficult to get any water off the canal system,” he said. “The pumping station is pumping at 50 or 60 percent of capacity right now until they’re able to ramp up … A lot of the fields are ready to go, but we’re just waiting for water delivery. Capacity is not happening yet.”

Rice is planted with airplanes that sprinkle the seed over fields flooded with a shallow layer of water. Growers want to plant quickly as water becomes available, so work is ramping up suddenly for area aviation services, including Hendrickson Air Service here.

“What has happened is everyone’s getting backed up because they only release so much water at a time and everyone wants their water now,” pilot Mike Chaffee said. “There’s a scramble for growers to get water on the fields.”

With the drought in its third year, the National Agricultural Statistics Service predicted rice acreage in California would drop by 20 percent this year, to 450,000 acres. Acreages for other field crops are also dramatically down, including for corn (28 percent), cotton (28 percent to 35 percent) and winter wheat (15 percent), according to NASS’ prospective plantings report.

About two-fifths of the rice crop was sown by the end of last week, NASS reported. Charley Mathews, a grower near Marysville, Calif., said he’s about halfway done.

“The weather has been good,” he said. “Typically if you have good weather like this when you seed, it’ll increase your odds of a good crop. It’s really a factor of what the summer weather looks like.”


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