RED BLUFF, Calif. — The dry spell in California this December has prompted some growers to begin irrigating again, but no one appears to fear a return to drought conditions, agricultural insiders say.
Mild afternoons and chilly nights have growers watering “in moderation” to aid new root activity in orchards or to protect against frost, said Allan Fulton, a University of California Cooperative Extension irrigation and water resources adviser.
“In almonds, it’s only 60 days before the likelihood that bloom will start to emerge,” said Fulton, who is based in Red Bluff. “With each passing day that the rains don’t come, there’s growing concern.”
Lindauer River Ranch, which grows walnuts and plums for prunes, is irrigating its younger orchards, manager Michael Vasey said.
“They’re not using very much water,” he said, adding that the measure is more for frost protection. “When it’s dry, there’s more damage.”
Butte County Farm Bureau executive director Colleen Cecil’s family’s small walnut operation recently started irrigating, she said.
“We don’t look forward to those winter PG&E bills,” Cecil said. “(Growers) are making decisions based on how much moisture is in the soil and the age of the trees. ... The orchard guys are talking about how much longer they’re going to go before having to turn the water on.”
However, Cecil doesn’t notice a sense of foreboding among farmers.
“I personally am looking at it,” she said. “I know how important that snow is up in the mountains, too.”
One silver lining in the lack of clouds is that growers have had ample opportunity to complete postharvest chores, Fulton said. Farms in recent weeks have finished harvesting corn silage and planting barley, cleared almond orchards of mummies, pushed out older orchards and prepped the ground for pre-plant fumigations, reported the National Agricultural Statistics Service in Sacramento.
But this month has begun to bear an unnerving resemblance to December 2013, which ended the driest calendar year in history in many areas and prompted Gov. Jerry Brown to declare a drought emergency the following month.
The nearly nonexistent precipitation during the last few weeks has put many areas well below their seasonal averages.
For instance, as of Dec. 26 Sacramento had only recorded 2.42 inches of rain for the water year that started Oct. 1, well below its normal 5.61 inches, according to the National Weather Service.
However, most reservoirs are still above their average levels so far this winter. Shasta Lake, the centerpiece of the federal Central Valley Project, was holding 114 percent of its normal water supply for this time of year as of Dec. 26, the state Department of Water Resources reported.
The only exception is Lake Oroville, which has been drawn down intentionally to accommodate dam repairs. The lake was at 35 percent of capacity and 58 percent of normal for Dec. 26, according to the DWR’s California Data Exchange Center.
The dry spell comes amid signs of a weak La Nina atmospheric phenomenon, which favors chilly storms in the Pacific Northwest but can leave much of California dry. In the past 65 years, 60 percent of weak La Nina winters have been drier than normal in California, said Michelle Mead, a National Weather Service warning coordinator in Sacramento.
Mead noted that the Sierra Nevada snowpack is anywhere from 29 percent to 41 percent of normal for this time of year. But winter just started, and it’s common to have lower snow amounts in December, she said in an email.
“We have January and February, two of the wettest months of the year, still remaining,” she said.