The prolonged dry spell may soon turn into a disaster.
The lack of measureable traces of rain for over 60 days has virtually wiped out the early alfalfa, oats, and other edible grass crops that are crucial to the dairy industry - San Joaquin County’s No. 1 agricultural industry.
At the same time fruit and nut trees are starting to show stress. That could mean ominous days ahead for the San Joaquin economy – already struggling under a 16 percent unemployment rate – that relies on agriculture for its biggest chunk of its jobs.
Supervisor Leroy Ornellas said Tuesday he is taking the preliminary steps to have the county declare a State of Emergency. He told a crowd of nearly 100 people at Chez Shari gathered for the South San Joaquin Republicans meeting that the first spring grasses have been decimated by the lack of precipitation.
Also on Tuesday the South San Joaquin Irrigation District took the unusual step of approving an early winter allotment of water for irrigating everything from fruit-bearing trees to alfalfa and grain.
Tuesday also brought more bad news in the form of an update in the water content of the central Sierra that the South County relies on for irrigation water. It is at 9 percent of normal for this time of year, down from 14 percent late last month.
The SSJID will release water from Goodwin Dam on the Stanislaus River into Woodward Reservoir and charge SSJID’s delivery system to make water available to growers and ranchers that need a little bit of help during what has been an unusually dry early winter season. The district believes it will have all canals ready by mid-month for an irrigation run.
Modesto Irrigation District has already committed to providing water to its customers during the winter months.
But those that take the water will do so at a gamble – banking that the district will have enough water to supply all of the necessary growers and fulfill their contracts through the summer.
The SSJID directors have been tracking what they believe will be a winter storm expected to hit the Central Valley on Jan. 18. Hopefully it will bring with it enough rain to make a difference in the current situation and give some growers the water that they need.
“Hopefully we’ll be drowning by then – we’ll be crying for dry land,” said director Ralph Roos. “If this summer is short I’ve got time to drill a well and cover myself.”
Last year California had an abundance of water thanks to early winter storms that left a massive Sierra snowpack that ended a five-year drought – filling reservoirs and swelling rivers and streams.
SSJID General Manager Jeff Shields and his staff have put together an emergency contingency plan that they would enact if the Sierra snowpack didn’t improve. It would make 135,000 acre-feet of water available for irrigation. That wouldn’t meet the demand of South County farmers.
Shields said that it would take some time to charge the system and notify the growers that water was available. Those who pass on it will be eligible to receive it again when the system comes on line on March 15.
He also noted that the district has been battling back and forth with the Bureau of Reclamation about where a portion of their allotted water ended up – hoping that it gets cleared up so that it can be allocated to help weather the current situation.
“This is the worst type of year,” he said. “We don’t own New Melones which holds 1.9 million acre-feet. We had 200,000 acre-feet at the end of September, so the question now is, ‘Where did it go?’