California’s drought: if you live and farm in the state there’s little else you could be told to illustrate just how bad it is for the state’s agriculture industry. One of those impacts stretches off the farm and onto the test plots of the state’s Land Grant institution, which this year celebrates its centennial of cooperative work with California agriculture.
The University of California Cooperative Extension is not an unlikely victim of the drought, though theirs is not an impact that will cause them to lose the farm. Still, they see and feel it.
Many growers in California will receive no surface water allocation this year because of the drought. Neither will the University of California’s Westside Research and Extension Center (WSREC) near Five Points, which gets its surface water from Westlands Water District.
The center also receives water from a deep well located on the 320-acre facility, but that well is not sufficient to irrigate all the farming operations that go on there, according to Bob Hutmacher, center director and a cooperative Extension farm advisor specializing in cotton, water issues and nutrient management.
Even if the well had the pumping capacity and the aquifer could sustain the level of pumping, Hutmacher says the quality of water is too salty for crops like vegetables and almonds. The marginal water can be safely used with some crops, such as cotton, cereal, grains and pistachios. Blended with the high quality Westlands water when it is available, Hutmacher says he is able to stretch his water supply and achieve good research results.
Without the high quality water from Westlands Water District, the research station is limited in what it can do from a research standpoint.
Great place for drought research
Ironically the location of the WSREC in California’s San Joaquin Valley is a near-perfect spot for drought-related research given the region’s dry climate. A normal season can bring five inches of rain to the center, whereas in drought years that number may be closer to an inch, Hutmacher said.
“If you’re trying to do drought research where you have ultimate control over how much water is available in any year this is one of the best places in the world to do that kind of work,” Hutmacher said. “You can do drought work in Kansas or Texas but you always have the chance that a thunderstorm could come in and relieve the drought when you don’t want it to from a research standpoint.
“Our opportunities to do drought-related research, artificial or otherwise, are always there in the San Joaquin Valley,” he continued. “It’s one of the normal attributes of this place. I think it’s part of the reason why there’s an interest in water-related research here any year.”
The lack of irrigation water to the research center means that Hutmacher had to tell researchers to cut back 25 percent on their use of water for the growing season. While he won’t dictate what projects researchers focus on and what do drop, the result is the same: some research projects won’t be done at the location.
“We try not to micromanage how they meet the target reduction in water,” Hutmacher said.
“I can speak for myself: I have about a half dozen cotton projects and a sorghum project, along with a sesame project and a couple of other things I’m working on,” he continued. “I’m downsizing most of them to the greatest degree I can and I’m going to cancel one of them.”
For Hutmacher, that means he will not do work on a nutrient management trial under drip irrigation because the impacts of severe deficit irrigation would be detrimental to his research. Cutting plot sizes too small to match water availability can also have a negative impact on achieving reliable yield data, he added.
The center has been careful in its use of water in previous years because of the inconsistent supply of surface water from the federal Central Valley Project and the State Water Project. This is the first year that both agencies have told growers to expect no surface water supplies for irrigation because of the drought.
Hutmacher said the center will make use of some carry-over surface water it did not use last season, but that won’t go very far, he said.
“That will give us a little bit of flexibility but it doesn’t solve all of our problems,” he said.
An almond variety trial was in the planning stages for the center, but Hutmacher had to pull the trial from consideration because not enough water could be guaranteed for the permanent crop.
That was part of a larger three-site trial funded by the Almond Board of California.
According to Bob Curtis, associate director of agricultural affairs with the Almond Board of California, the loss of available land at the WSREC did not prevent the variety trial from continuing though it did create a bit of a scramble late last year as a replacement site had to be secured.
Curtis was complimentary of Hutmacher’s willingness to do the trial and his diplomacy in sharing that the facility could not ensure an ample supply of quality irrigation water for the 15-year project.
While trial locations at California State University, Chico and the northern Stanislaus County community of Salida had been secured and were ready to go, the south-valley trial was moved to land owned by Creekside Farming Company in Madera County with the cooperation of grower Jay Mahil. The Salida project is being done with the cooperation of Lane Parker and PSI Farming.
“This is a major undertaking for our cooperators,” Curtis said. “You’re really asking them to go above and beyond with 15-year commitments to the crop.”
Participating UC farm advisors for the Almond Board project are Joe Connell at the Chico State trial, Roger Duncan in the Salida trial and Gurreet Brar in the Madera County trial.
County Extension work impacted
Duncan is a pomology expert from the UCCE office in Stanislaus County, his work with fruit and nut crops has not been negatively impacted. Duncan works exclusively with commercial growers. He said very few growers in his region are removing orchards in response to the drought, though there have been reports elsewhere of older orchards being removed and replaced with new trees because the smaller trees require less water.
Duncan does expect soil salinity problems in tree crops this year because of the lack of winter rainfall to leech salts further into the soil, but that may work to his favor as some of his research includes salt tolerance with various root stocks.
Duncan sees the challenges of the drought and other climatic conditions as a positive and an ability to further help the commercial growers he works with.
“Every year is different (wet, dry, hot, cold) and it just gives us new opportunities to look at more things,” he said.
Other university farm advisors indicate the drought will have a mixed bag of results for them.
David Doll, an almond farm advisor in Merced County says his research plots are “mostly OK.” His only exception is that the increased reliance on groundwater has ruined several orchard nitrogen trials because the groundwater in northern Merced has high rates of nitrate nitrogen, which acts as a nitrogen fertilizer.
Fresno County Farm Advisor Dan Munk said he will continue putting off alfalfa trials at the WSREC “indefinitely until a more secure water supply is available.”
Munk said the alfalfa trials are quite critical in Central California because of the high use of alfalfa for dairies in the state.
“Our team is trying to develop highly efficient irrigation practices for forages in the region in trying to address the dairy feed shortage issue caused by the drought,” Munk said. “The WSREC trials involve the evaluation of corn, sorghum and small grains for silage and alfalfa forage with the objective to identify individual crops as well as cropping systems that have improved economics during drought conditions.”
Drought-tolerant crops studied
Scott Stoddard, a farm advisor from Merced County who works with tomatoes and other crops, says he’s been impacted positively and negatively by the drought.
“I had to quit trying to do tomato research at the UC West Side Research and Education Center basically because of water restrictions,” Stoddard said. “I could see it coming last year and decided to not even try in 2014. This year in Merced I’m also reducing the size of my research area at Merced College by 30 percent or more to save water.”
On the flip side, Stoddard said he began work with sweet potatoes in 2010 in anticipation of future water restrictions and a need by the industry to know what the water requirements are for the crop.
Stoddard said his interest in sweet potatoes was not initially shared by others in the industry.
“They thought I was just playing around when I started,” he said. “I couldn’t get any interest in helping fund the project, but a good cooperator and my own interest in the project kept it going for four years. Now everybody wants to know just how little water they need to get a reasonable crop.”
Research projects in northern California have also seen a mixed bag of impacts related to the drought. Chris Greer is the county extension director in Sutter, Yuba, Colusa and Glenn counties in the Sacramento Valley. He said some rangeland trials have been impacted by the lack of rain, as have some wheat trials. There are no known impacts yet on rice trials in northern California, Greer said.
Bruce Lampinen, a walnut and almond specialist with the University of California, has seen his pruned versus unpruned orchard trials at the Nickels Soil Lab in Arbuckle severely impacted by drought and the station’s zero-percent water allocation. Lampinen remains unsure as to the drought impacts or data collection on similar trials with commercial growers elsewhere in California.
“Overall our impacts from a research standpoint in northern California have not been across-the-board, but there definitely have been some impacts up here,” Greer said.