Rice planting proceeds as water availability varies

Tim Hearden/Capital Press Russel Maben stabilizes the edge of a field to be flooded for rice planting on his family's farm near Willows, Calif. Some water districts have imposed strict rules against runoff from rice planting, which is underway in the Sacramento Valley.

WILLOWS, Calif. — For rice growers in California’s Sacramento Valley, this season has been all about working and waiting.

Balmy spring afternoons were perfect for getting fields ready for this year’s anticipated 408,000-acre rice crop, but water uncertainties amid a fourth year of drought forced many to wait and wonder about deliveries.

But planting finally commenced in the last week of April and is nearly halfway finished, with some fields already showing rice emerging from the water.

“Planting is going full swing right now,” said Luis Espino, a University of California Cooperative Extension rice crop adviser in Colusa. “With the water situation early on, everyone was expecting water deliveries to be a little late — the first week of May. Then it was actually delivered a little earlier than that.”

In Butte County, planting is about two weeks ahead of what would be a normal timeframe, said Cass Mutters, a UCCE rice farm adviser.

“This spring was unfortunately so dry and so warm that growers were out working their fields,” Mutters said. “As a result, the planting schedule is accelerated this year.”

Water availability varies widely this spring, depending on where a farm is. Growers in districts along the Sacramento River that have senior rights have been told to expect 75 percent of normal deliveries, although U.S. Bureau of Reclamation officials have hedged a bit on whether they’d be able to deliver even that much.

Meanwhile, those who divert from the Feather River have had their water cut in half, while farmers on the east side of the valley face cuts of 30 percent to 60 percent, the California Farm Bureau Federation reported. Junior right holders who rely on Central Valley Project water will get none for a second straight year.

“There’s going to be a lot of fallowing,” Espino said. “It’s hard to say how much, but my guess is it’s going to be maybe 10 or 15 percent more than last year. Growers might not get surface water but might be able to pump here and there or get water from somewhere else. We’ll see at the end what the actual acreage is.”

An anticipated 408,000-acre crop would be 6 percent below the acreage seeded in 2014 and well below the 550,000 acres planted in 2013, according to the National Agricultural Statistics Service. As a result of the drop in acreage, the fall yield of 36.8 million hundredweight was down 23 percent from 2013, NASS estimated.

Some water transfers are taking place to facilitate this year’s crop, but the early-season hype about the prospect of growers selling water to cities has died down because of a lack of available water and because of districts’ restrictions on fallowing fields to send water elsewhere.

Some districts have instituted “no-spill policies” during field flooding to maximize the acreage that can be planted, Mutters said.

Rice is typically planted between mid-April and mid-May, with harvests coming six months later. Growers who plant later than that risk running into rains during harvest, which happened in 2014 with a late October storm that stopped work.

Among other field crops, according to NASS:

• Cotton planting in Fresno County is nearly complete, and fields were progressing nicely.

• Oats and alfalfa fields are being cut, windrowed and baled.

• Wheat is maturing quickly and is being cut for silage. The wheat crop is rated as 90 percent good to excellent.

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