Iowa Public Television


California Drought Intensifies

posted on February 21, 2014

Despite an especially cold and snowy winter in the upper Midwest, officials are optimistic that spring flooding will be minimal. 

In their latest spring outlook this week, several branches of the National Weather Service did not project significant flooding in most Midwestern waterways, and the risk of even minor flooding is below normal in many watersheds.

That's a bit of a surprise considering the amount of snow blanketing the upper Midwest. Despite a brief warming trend earlier this week, parts of Minnesota, Wisconsin and Iowa still have up to 3 feet of snow on the ground.  Officials, however, say much of the snowfall has been offset by drought, and when it melts, much of it is expected to soak into the parched ground.

And that’s adding insult to injury for farmers in California, where water allocations this spring will be in acre-inches instead of the customary measurement of acre-feet.  Andrew Batt examined the agricultural impact of three consecutive years of drought in the Golden State, and filed this report.

Frank Imhof, Sunol, California: “When gas 5 to 6 dollars a gallon usually we can adjust. We can raise our price of hay. We can raise our price of doing tractor work. We can raise our price on our construction business. But if it don’t rain how do you adjust that. You can’t."

Frank Imhof has spent his entire life along the hilly ranchlands of west central California.  His cattle operation was passed down from his father who took ownership from Frank’s grandfather. And all throughout those three generations of Imhoffs, they’ve never seen anything like this…

Frank Imhof, Sunol, California: “All the way down. There ain’t nothing there. There is grain that hasn’t popped out yet. There ain’t enough moisture there to sustain that for very long I wouldn’t think. So is it the worst? Its definitely the worst.”

Imhof’s hundreds acres of farmland, much of it used for hay production, are dry and fallow following an unrelenting barrage of warm weather and bone-dry conditions.

Frank Imhof, Sunol, California: “Our daily average is 57 degrees and were at. What the hell are we at? 77 yesterday.”

Frank’s plight is emblematic of cattle ranchers throughout California…all suffering under the worst drought conditions in recorded history as they make tough decisions on culling their herds. Imhof’s additional grazing ground, within a stone’s throw of the San Francisco Bay, often requires pumps to keep the water table from seeping in…not this year.

Frank Imhof, Sunol, California: “My wife did not come from a farming background and she thinks this is pretty close to the end.”

The Golden State is a hotbed of extremely dry conditions with more than 95 percent of California in some stage of drought. 70 percent of the state is categorized in either extreme or exceptional drought.

More than 150 miles away from Imhoff’s cattle in the Sierra Nevada foothills, the massive dam at Lake McClure shows how severe California’s situation has become for the region’s water supply.  A dramatic drop in the water level here has revealed a 1920’s era dam usually tucked below hundreds of feet of lake water.

Mike Jensen: “Our economy…one third of it is driven by agriculture. Given our economy and our way of life here at Merced…I think to look at this lake the word is heartbreaking.”

Mike Jensen with Merced Irrigation District, points out that Lake McClure’s role as a multi-purpose water reservoir serving California’s central valley could be tasked to a breaking point in 2014.

Mike Jensen, Merced Irrigation District: “We are going into what appears to be our third dry year. We’ve had two consecutive dry years in 2012 and 2013 and as of know this is one of the driest years we’ve got on record for the Merced irrigation district. The lake capacity itself is one million acre feet and we are down to less than 22 percent today.”

Water now slowly seeping out of Lake McClure descends towards the Central Valley via the Merced River before massive pumping stations throughout the valley irrigate farm fields filled with everything from lettuce to almond trees. California produces one-third of the nation’s fruits and vegetables.

For growers and processors like Jeff Marchini, it’s a combination of focusing on both short term shortages and long term solutions.

Jeff Marchini: “Almonds are a permanent crop but there is going be a lot of ground that is fallowed this year because of a lack of water and there is only X of it going around. So you’re going to see growers take whatever allocation they have and whatever fine amount of water they have to keep their permanent crop alive and fallow those rotational crops. There is going to be a lot of things that are just not going to get planted.”

Marchini’s almond processing facility is still cleaning and processing 80 million pounds of fresh product annually but his fields outside are carefully allocating precious moisture through pivot and drip irrigation.

Marchini and other growers are concerned that farmers dealt with acre-inches of water from the Merced Irrigation District will simply turn to their only other option: pumping from deep underground aquifers and further depleting the region’s water table for generations to come.

Jeff Marchini: “We don’t like pumping out of those aquifers unless we really have to. Why? Because it is a precious resource and there are unknowns on how much exactly is out there.”

Back upstream at Lake McClure, water officials know their hope of a seasonal snowpack recharge is dismal at best.

Mike Jensen, Merced Irrigation District: “We’re watching the weather as close as anybody and its frustrating. We still do have a couple of months of winter left. So things could change but we’re not terribly optimistic at this point. We’re planning for a dry year.”

Lake McClure’s water level is largely recharged from this famed valley known as Yosemite National Park.  But the conditions here have been so warm that hikers have basked in 60-degree temperatures in January as the tallest waterfall in North America is nothing more than a trickle.  The promise of a snowpack recharge is almost nonexistent.

The nearby Hetch Hetchy Valley district serves 2.4 million Californians by pumping water from near Yosemite…over the hills…and west to San Francisco.

Frank Imhof, Sunol, California: “We should have a foot of grass out here right now. A foot of green grass.”

Andrew Batt: “But what do you have now?”

Frank Imhof, Sunol, California: “Nothing. Two inches of nothing.”

Ranchers like Frank Imhof question whether the hard decisions he’ll have to make on the farm will be required of nearby population centers.

Frank Imhof, Sunol, California: “This is San Francisco water ground. There are two reservoirs back here. There is Hetchy Hetchy. The two million people that live in San Francisco are going to get drinking water. They’re not going to waste an ounce of time for a farmer.”

He made a point of showing our Market to Market crew what runs beneath his parched rangelands: a massive water pipe destined for coastal cities.

Frank Imhof, Sunol, California: “There again, who is going to win this battle. This water…will it ever stop. Those dams like you saw yesterday are empty and we don’t get snow. Will this stop? And if it does, what do those people do?”

When President Obama visited California late last week, he promised disaster support from Washington but had a warning not just for California…but the entire American west in the 21st century.

President Obama: “We've got to start looking at these disasters as something to prepare for to anticipate to start building new infrastructure to start having new plans to recalibrate the baseline that we're working off of and everybody from farmers to industry to residential areas to the north of California and every place in between as well as the entire western region are gonna have to start re-thinking how we approach water for decades to come.”

For Market to Market, I’m Andrew Batt.



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