Rice Farming

California’s Water
Woes Continue

Governor sounds wakeup call, clock is ticking

By Brenda Carol

Drought continues to take a toll on all of California’s agriculture. With a gloomy seasonal forecast on the horizon, growers, as well as urbanites, are preparing for what is expected to be yet another winter with below average precipitation and snow. The past two dry years have compounded the water crisis, resulting in a 14-year low storage in the state’s reservoirs. Additionally, court-ordered restrictions on water deliveries from the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta have further exacerbated the problem. The Department of Water Resources (DWR) announced in late October an initial allocation of 15 percent for water delivery to State Water Project (SWP) contractors in 2009.

This comes on the heels of California Governor Schwarzenegger’s Drought Executive Order (S-06-08) issued in June mandating various conservation programs, water transfers and other measures for municipalities, agriculture and the complex myriad of water districts that exist in the state.

“This further dramatizes the urgent need for additional investments in water storage and conveyance infrastructure to assure an adequate and reliable water supply,” said SWP Director Lester Snow. “The uncertainly of precipitation patterns due to global warming and deteriorating conditions in the Delta – California’s main water hub – demand immediate action to enhance our ecosystem and keep our economy productive in the 21st century. The Governor has sounded the wakeup call, and the clock is ticking.”

Water allocation impacts farming and wildlife
The allocation is the second lowest in the history of the SWP. The Federal Water Project will also likely be impacted.

“Most of us who are on the west side of the Sacramento River, or straddle the Sacramento River, receive our water from the Federal Water Projects,” says Don Bransford, rice grower and president of the Glenn-Colusa Irrigation District. “Those contracts can be cut up to 25 percent in a dry year. On the other side of the valley where growers get their water from the State Water Project or from private supplies, the state can cut them up to 50 percent.”

The potential scenarios are all over the board, depending on what water district a grower relies on and what Mother Nature ultimately supplies this winter.

“I think, in general, if things stay the way they are, we’re going to see a 25 to 50 percent cut in water supply for 2009,” Bransford says.

That could spell disaster, or at least hardship, not only for rice growers but also for the years of diligent effort by the rice industry to preserve local wildlife habitat. The state’s ricelands provide an unparalleled wildlife habitat for over 20 species of wildlife and hundreds of thousands of acres of wetland – an environmental resource estimated at $1 billion in habitat value.

The Manomet Center for Conservation Science has recognized the value of California rice fields by designating them “Shorebird Habitat of International Significance.” The area is the second-largest North American shorebird site within the Western Hemisphere Shorebird Reserve Network and is comprised of nearly 90 percent ricelands.

“If we have less water available for rice production, especially in the winter straw decomposition season, that would negatively impact wildlife in the Sacramento Valley,” says Paul Buttner, manager of Environmental Affairs for the California Rice Commission in Sacramento. “Nestled within the Pacific Flyway – a critical bird migration corridor – the Sacramento Valley holds nearly half of the flyway’s seven million waterfowl and hundreds of thousands of shorebirds, herons, egrets and ibis. Less rice equates to less habitat for more than 20 species of wildlife.”

As water resources become tighter, the questions become who should get priority? People? The environment? Fish? Birds? Farmers? How can the priorities be balanced?

“Fortunately, when it comes to rice production in California, most of these tough decisions are not in conflict,” Buttner says. “Rice farming and wildlife go hand-in-hand. What’s more, the water released from rice fields is reused to flood about half of the Sacramento Valley’s wetlands. So, the use of water for rice production is a win-win for farmers and wildlife.”

Landscape has changed since 1991
It is difficult at this point to know how the 2009 water situation will ultimately play out.

“The last time we received a cut – 25 percent – we were still able to farm all of our ground,” Bransford says. “We had a very strict conservation program. We didn’t allow any spilling of water out of the fields. With the purchased water and the well water we were able to plant everything. Not every irrigation district is able to do that, or they may have a program that is more individualized. In Colusa County, we have less ground water than they do in Glenn County.

“The issue we’re faced with in the northern part of the state is that because of the anticipated drought, the State Water Bank is looking for 600,000 acre-feet of water. They’re only looking one place and that’s north of the Delta. The Department of Water Resources is looking at rice. In 1991, we transferred approximately 700,000 to 800,000 acre-feet of water south of the Delta. But times were different back then. Today, we have high rice prices, so growers are going to be reluctant to fallow ground. They want to plant. Also, we’ve got significant environmental restrictions that we didn’t have in 1991.”

That’s where water conservation, environmental concerns and grower interests enter into the “Bermuda Triangle.” Even if a grower wants to fallow ground, he may not be allowed to do so.

“We have giant garter snake issues and regulations that say you can’t fallow more than 160 acres in a block,” Bransford says. “You can’t fallow any ground within a mile of the Sacramento River. You can’t fallow ground within a mile of certain drains or within a mile of certain creeks and wildlife refuges. It all becomes very complicated under California’s regulatory umbrella.”

For the most part, rice growers are already conserving as much water as possible. In fact, water use in California rice fields has declined by nearly 40 percent during the last 30 years. “This land has been laser leveled,” Bransford says.

“Historically, 20 to 30 years ago, fields were contoured. Now we have straight levees. Now we’re only putting on two to four inches of water across a field. Most of our rice is grown on hard pan, clay type soils so there’s very little, if any, percolation.”

In terms of consumptive water use, California’s rice growers use 3.3 acre-feet of water to grow rice, according to Bransford. “Anything above that goes back into the system,” he says. “It goes into a drain and then back into the Sacramento River where it can be used for drinking water, export purposes or Delta outflow.”

Drought situation tactics?
There are still a few measures that can be taken in a drought situation, and those will likely be implemented in the coming year.

“There are strict conservation programs growers can follow,” Bransford says. “The last time we were in this situation, we minimized or restricted any outflow from the field. Additionally, we can put just enough water on to hit evapotranspiration levels. It takes a lot more management, will increase our cost of production and has the potential to reduce yields in the future.”

For now, it’s a wait-and-see game.

“We in the northern part of the state are going to do what we can to help the rest of the state, but we also need to balance that with a viable economy for ourselves,” Bransford says. “We’ve got to work together. This situation absolutely underlines the critical need for more storage and infrastructure throughout the state.”

Brenda Carol is a freelance writer based in California. Contact her at (805) 226-9896 or brenda@brendacarol.net.

CRC vigilantly addresses water issues

The California Rice Commission has been proactive at addressing water issues for many years – from supply to quality. As gloomy as the current situation appears, they are not backing down.

“We are focusing largely on education of opinion leaders and the general public regarding the habitat values of water used for rice production,” says Paul Buttner, manager of Environmental Affairs for the California Rice Commission.

“If the habitat provided by 500,000 acres of the California rice industry were to be replicated through wetlands restoration, it would cost over one billion dollars,” he notes.

“Given the intense competition for water and land use in a rapidly urbanizing state like California, it is essentially irreplaceable at any price.”