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Dry Winter Raises Concern, Not Panic
On the outskirts of Oakdale, calves eat hay from a trough. Ranchers are buying hay to supplement their cattle as the lack of rain means a lack of winter forage. - photo by Dawn M. Henley/The Leader

“Farmers are eternal optimists – we always believe the rains will come but we’re nervous until it happens,” said Tom Orvis with the Stanislaus County Farm Bureau.

The first snow survey readings of the winter conducted on Jan. 3 are the driest on record – tied with those from January of 2012, according to California’s Department of Water Resources (DWR). With a couple dry winters in a row, the lack of rain to this point in the year raises concerns in the agriculture industry. Orvis noted that the farmers he’s been in contact with are worried.

“The cattlemen (are concerned) because they don’t have any grass and are feeding hay, and the orchard guys because they are starting to think about when the irrigation districts will turn the water in (to the canals) or when they’ll have to turn the pumps on,” he said. “The dairymen are thinking the same thing with their winter forage and wonder if there will be enough water for their silage corn and alfalfa. They all see the mountains with no snowpack to speak of.”

However, it’s still early in the season and forecasters say there’s still time for the winter to get wet. Orvis said the area has been known to get rain later in the winter and have “March miracles.” While that doesn’t help the cattlemen with winter pasture, a rainy spring would make a difference in the reservoirs. One Oakdale tree farmer said he’s concerned but sees this dry winter as part of a normal cycle.

The California Department of Water Resources’ website states that the first snow survey of the winter on Jan. 3 showed that manual and electronic readings of the snowpack’s statewide water content is at about 20 percent of normal for this time of year. It further states, “…In addition to the sparse snowpack, many areas of California ended calendar year 2013 with the lowest rainfall amounts on record. All this could change quickly if weather patterns shift and bring stormy conditions that are typical for January and February.” The April 1 measurement is when the snowpack normally is at its peak before melting into streams and reservoirs to provide a third of the water used by California’s cities and farms, stated on the website.

DWR will issue its first snowmelt runoff forecast of the winter season on Jan. 9, based on information from automatic snow sensors and field surveys.


Wells And Groundwater

With the dry season thus far and dropping reservoirs, relying on groundwater starts to come into play. There’s been chatter around the county about a possible moratorium on wells and with that, Orvis said, there was a surge in well permits in the county – comparing it to how the U.S. saw spikes in gun and ammunition sales when there’s talk in the upper echelons of government about gun and ammo control.

Orvis said that just because people are putting in a well, it doesn’t mean they’re drawing water out of it, although he said some people think otherwise.

“I think there are a lot of people drilling wells now as an insurance policy,” Orvis said.

The Oakdale farmer, who didn’t wish to be identified, agreed with Orvis’ statement about having the wells as insurance.

The farmer said that the deep Ag wells are a large investment – in the six figures by the time it’s operational. He said that he wouldn’t make such a large investment per acre on a well that won’t work, meaning one that would go dry, in a couple years. He also said they don’t like to run the pumps more than necessary because the energy costs alone can be “horrendous,” anywhere from $4,500 to $6,800 per month with the pumps running in heavy use, about 50 percent of the time.

“It’s a long-term investment,” he said.

Further, he said that farmers do a fair amount of planning and investigation before drilling a well, they can consult with a number of entities, including a geologist, hydrologist, a professional engineer, well driller, pump tester, and so on. The farmer also noted that not every well turns out to be a good source for supporting crops. He believes a lot of the groundwater fear is hype. He said that permits are extremely accelerated now but he believes they’ll taper off.

Orvis and the farmer also spoke about the differences between the depths of domestic/ranchette wells and deep wells. Many domestic wells around the area are around 100 feet – some even less – and they draw water from different strata in the ground than the deep wells. The Ag wells in this area, the farmer said, are generally 250 feet to 500 feet. They are usually lined with a casing to about 200 feet to 250 feet, sealed off from the upper strata, with the perforations (where the water is drawn in) being deeper than 250 feet, he added.

The farmer talked about how some farmers have “targets on their backs” for having deep wells because some interests think that the deep wells are draining the aquifer and affecting everyone.

According to the California State Water Resources Control Board, private domestic wells typically draw from shallow aquifers, while deep wells draw from deep aquifers. According to the U.S. Geological Survey, “Although ground water can move from one aquifer into another, it generally follows the more permeable pathways within the individual aquifers from the point of recharge…to the point of discharge.”

Orvis talked about the drought of 1976 and 1977 and said that there were wells around the county that went dry. He said that the difference now is that there are “a lot more straws in the ground and those straws come in the form of ranchettes and Ag wells.” Oakdale is chock full of ranchettes and Orvis talked about how the population is much denser now, especially in the areas of Orange Blossom and Rodden roads.

“Drilling a well and always having water there is never a guarantee for anybody,” Orvis cautioned.

The Oakdale farmer said that living in the country is a more expensive lifestyle and drilling a well deep enough to support a farm of any size is an investment and responsibility on the part of the property owner.

Orvis said that the Farm Bureau’s policy is that water use is a right of the overlying landowner, and in the event of adjudication, water should be kept local – at a county level. He said that’s because local people understand the situation, the economy, the “lay of the land” in their area.


Recharge And Rainfall

In a report given in November 2013 at an Oakdale Irrigation District board meeting by OID Water Operations Manager Eric Thorburn, it showed from 2005-2011: the district’s water allotment (full or partial), a mix of wet and dry years, the amount of groundwater pumping (including private use in OID), and the amount of groundwater recharge in the OID service area of 55,000 acres. The average pumping per year for wet years during that time was 23,169 acre feet (AF) and the average total recharge being 68,371 AF, resulting in a net groundwater recharge of 45,202 AF. The dry year average was 33,093 AF in pumping and an average total recharge of 74,195 AF, resulting in a net groundwater recharge 41,102 AF. There was note made that OID doesn’t know and can’t control what’s happening outside its service area.

Snow Ranch, Orvis’ family’s ranch, which sits along State Highway 4 about 11 miles east of Farmington and 17 miles north of Oakdale, gets slightly more rain than Oakdale but for many years it was a reporting station for DWR. The ranch still measures and reports rainfall to local entities, Orvis said. Snow Ranch collects rain data in a July 1 through June 30 cycle. It recorded rainfall of just 7.9 inches in the cycle of 1975-76. For 2012-13, it was 13.09 inches of rain and so far, from July 2013 through December 2013, it’s recorded 1.98 inches. Its data shows that the six month average for rains from January through June is approximately double the average of those from July through December. So if the water cycle holds true to the average for this season, the rainiest part of the year is yet to come.

According to the rainfall records for Oakdale maintained by the office of the A.L. Gilbert Company, the total for the 2012-13 year in a September to August cycle was 11.01 inches. The previous year was 10.50 inches in the same period. Its 1975-76 cycle showed 6.9 inches.

According to DWR, many lakes and reservoirs are less than 40 percent capacity as of Dec. 31, 2013 including Lake Shasta (37 percent), Folsom Lake (19 percent), Lake Oroville (36 percent) and San Luis Reservoir (30 percent). As of midnight Jan. 5, New Melones Reservoir was slightly better at 43 percent of total capacity, which is 78 percent of the historical average for this date. Current storage is at 1,050,622 AF, and the average storage for Jan. 5 is 1,350,759 AF.

“It’s not going away until it rains,” Orvis said drolly of the dry conditions. “…We’ve been through this before.”

He also said that human nature shows that once it rains, people have a tendency to forget it’s dry because it’s no longer in the front of their minds.

“I can’t see it staying this dry,” the farmer said. “We’re going to get some rain, we just don’t know how much… We’re going to be okay… It’s going to cost everybody a little bit more money and little more investment.”