The 2018 California Drought and Farming without Water!


Is the 2018 California drought a reality? Over the winter there has been little to no rainfall thus far. With all this dry weather is California back in a water crisis? There are many questions about water, both regarding the potential drought this year and our relationship with the resource as rice farmers.

Our rice fields are located in Butte County and the reservoir we draw our water from is the Lake Oroville Dam. We are facing a 2018 drought in our area for two reasons: (1) no rain and snow (2) over the spring and summer in 2017 water was released from the Oroville Dam to allow the repairs on the damaged spillway.

Hopefully we will be saved by rains in March. It’s happened before.

Full Transcript:

Is California falling into a 2018 drought? And what does no significant rain over the winter, thus far, mean for farmers? Will there be water to farm and is it time to be concerned? Weather and water continue to be a hot, divisive topic and these are questions a lot of us are asking?

Just last week YouTube user William M asks, “Hey Matt! What’s the drought situation there? I heard it’s making a come back? So, right now I’m going to answer that and a lot of questions about water that relate to our rice farming practices here in northern California.

Last week on both the Rice Farming TV YouTube Channel and Facebook Page I wanted to know what general questions you all had about rice farming. I received a lot of great questions and was really surprised to see that a majority of them were very much water related. So in this episode I’m going to predominantly focus on water. I’ll address your more general questions of ‘how rice is grown in California’ in a near future episode.

So back to William M’s question remember: “Hey Matt! What’s the drought situation there? I heard it’s making a come back.” Well William, it’s not looking good man. The rice fields we farm are in Butte County and the reservoir from which we receive our irrigation water comes from the Lake Oroville Dam. At a glance: the lake is super low, due to 2 factors: (1) the release of substantial amounts of water throughout last year during repairs on the damaged spillway. And (2) next to no rain. Making matters worse:  the snow pack up above the dam is at around 14% of average (as of 2/1/18). This is important because this would-be snow, melts and supplements the lake oroville dam throughout the hot summer.

It’s too early to call it a drought but it’s getting tight as 2.5 out of 3 of California’s wettest months have had little rainfall. In the past we have been saved by March rains and even just last year it rained into April. So with weather patterns shifting we still may be okay. But if our county was stuck with the water we have now, we’d be in trouble. It’s important to note that, I believe, several other north state counties, farms and cities are okay because their respective reservoirs are full. So Great lead off question thanks you William!

Juan Browne aka Blancolirio wrote on Facebook, “I’m interested in the water story…what you do in dry years?” Oh Juan, this gets a bit complicated for a quick answer but it basically depends on the county and the water rights that are attached to the land on which the rice farmer farms. It’s important to note, I’m only speaking about Butte County, where our rice fields are located.

So, with primary water rights the farmer is guaranteed, contracted water from the state. On a normal year the farmer just pays the irrigation district’s water managers and ditch tenders to supply their farm’s allocated water throughout the growing season. In a dry year the irrigation district may facilitate a water sale and transfer. Basically the farmer could elect to sell a portion of their allocated water to cities or environmental organizations to help with non-rice-related needs and in effect not plant that portion of their fields. In Butte County our rice fields lie in a water rich area of the state and not all farmers nor all water districts in other countries have this opportunity to sell water.  

Now, in extreme drought cases the state can break contract and cut the farmer back like 50% of their water allocation. This simply means the farmers would only have enough water to farm 50% of their ground and if they wanted to plant more they would need to supplement that delivered surface water with underground water. This means deep well pumps would need to run throughout the spring and summer–adding a lot of extra expenses, work and stress to the farmer.

There are also secondary water right holders within the county and they would be cut back 100%–not offered surface water at all and need to solely rely on deepwells. A very large percent of our farming acreage is ground with secondary water rights and our operation is dramatically affected during drought years. Luckily we do have deep wells. Some farmers do not. Thanks Juan. Great question! Looking forward to collab with you in the near future!

Now “h baker” from YouTube has a great two part question which I feel is extremely important to address. This first question was prompted by last week’s episode of Rice Farming TV as we are draining our winter water that is decomposing last year’s remaining rice straw. He asks, “Matt, where do you rice farmers drain the standing water to? Irrigation canals, river discharge?”

Each rice farm has its own irrigation infrastructure so water could flow between one field into the next, within that individual rice farm. But when we drain our rice fields and it leaves the farm the water goes into the county’s irrigation system. So if it’s during the growing season the water can leave one rice farmer’s farm and into another rice farmer’s farm.

As it flows south, the water will eventually move down into the Sacramento River and potentially be utilized by other farmers and not just rice farmers but those growing row crops or tending to orchards. So it’s cool to think that the water can be used to recharge natural waterways and also be utilized by other farmers.

Further down south the water could also be diverted at the Sacramento–San Joaquin River Delta, or California Delta and potentially pumped down to southern California. Otherwise the water would flow out into the Pacific Ocean, through the San Francisco Bay right under the Golden Gate Bridge.

But the flow of surface water is not the only way water leaves our rice fields. There’s evaporation up into the atmosphere and subbing down into the soil. The latter of which recharges the water table. Another cool aspect of rice water living on.

Now, H baker continues his comment with this statement: I would think fertilizer and agrochemical runoff would eliminate drainage to natural waterways. Very good point of discussion. With every pest management application comes a set of guidelines of which the manufacturers, federal and state Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) as well as Department of Pest Control Regulation (DPR) have set in place.

These guidelines involve use rates, droplet size, handling precautions, wind restrictions, and much much more. Now In regards to drainage into natural waterways, water-holds are prescribed under these guidelines. Water-holds mean that we cannot have any water leaving the field after a set amount of days.  We must put in the work to board up (or dam up) any drain-risers (or exit points) in the field and shovel mud in front of those boards in order to seal them off. The water-hold is set in place until the pest management application has dissipated.

You see these chemical compounds break down in the environment through interaction with soil, water and air as well as degradation from sunlight. The water-hold is to insure that this happens on the farm. This is enforced by DPR and the County Department of Agriculture. The state also has monitoring stations at various points along waterways and rivers, helping them ensure that the water is clean. The manufacturer wants their product to work and inorder for it to work the product needs to stay in the field–so they support the water-hold. The farmer also wants the product to work so we’ll follow the guidelines. The government agencies and we all– want to protect the environment for healthy life, which are why so many guidelines like the water-holds are set into place. Everyone is on the same team. Any abuse awards us a heavy, substantial fine!

But that’s just pest management applications. Check out Episode 38 “Herbicide Weed Control and the Truth” for more on all that. You also mentioned fertilizer and I’ll address that but I first want to introduce a related fertilizer question on Facebook from Zach Johnson aka MN Millennial Farmer (check him out on YouTube)!

Zach asks, “What is your fertilizer program like and how do you keep nitrogen in the soil when your fields are so saturated?” Well Zach after our fields have dried out from the winter water draining that we’re doing now we’re going to work up the ground with pull chisels and discs, we’ll smooth out the nice, dry fluffy dirt with a land-plane and then add our fertilizer first we’ll inject aqua ammonia (nitrogen) 3 inches deep into the soil.

Because the ground is totally dry the fertilizer bonds to the soil. We also roll onto the field’s surface a fertilizer blend made up of nitrogen, potassium and phosphorus. Also when the field is dry.

In a rush we flood the field and apply the seed. The idea is the seed will get a boost when it hits the soil from that fertilizer blend. Then a week or two later and the root rice seed’s root grow it will get a further boost from that nitrogen that was injected 3” down. About 90% of the fertilizer that we apply during the growing season is applied at this time, preplant on dry soil.

We don’t find that the fertilizer moves out of the field with the water simply because not much water, very, very little in fact is actually leaving the field. Remember we are abiding by water holds for our pest management applications–some of which are applied on the day of seeding. It’s important to note that whether it’s fertilizer or pest management applications we are pinpointing the use rate. We only want to apply what the plant needs to survive and thrive.

So for example, we’re not over fertilizing because we don’t want to make the plant sick or overgrown. Also fertilizer costs money. So Zach and H baker I hope that answers your questions. We’re going to get this 2018 rice planting season started soon. I’ll make sure to show you guys what I’ve been explaining in future episodes. Also soon, we will have a better understanding if California is in fact in a 2018 drought. Let’s see what type of rainfall and snow we receive in the end of February and throughout March.

I’ll certainly keep you updated with that. Wow, I only answered 5 of your’ questions but when it comes to water there’s no simple answer. Nor does water deserve a simple answer because it’s so important to everybody and everything. I say this every crop year. It’s going to be interesting. Thanks for watching.