Farm Progress

Heavy rains Sept. 8 in nation's "Winter Salad Bowl" in the Yuma, Ariz. area floods farm fields and wipes out just-planted winter vegetable crops.Somerton area received about five inches of rain - double the area's annual rainfall amount.Tom Davis: "This has set back producers this season. It’s really been a disaster."

September 11, 2015

5 Min Read
<p>Workers dig through the mud Sept. 9 to drain rain water off a newly-planted produce field in the Yuma Valley. Photo by Kurt Nolte.</p>

Mother Nature gave the newly launched winter produce season in the Yuma area quite a kick-off this week with too much of a good thing.

A thunderstorm on Sept. 8 brought to the nation’s winter salad bowl what one observer described as “tremendous winds, unbelievable lightning, and hurricane-strength rains” which over a three-hour period drenched tender young vegetable crops in the Yuma Valley with up to five inches of water.

A typical irrigation application is about three inches over three days.

And the potential for more precipitation in the coming days looms as the remnants of Hurricane Linda lingers off the coast of Baja California, continuing to add moisture to the air over the Southwest.

“September could be a wet month,” said Dan Leins, meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Phoenix.

There’s also a possibility this will be a wetter than usual winter because of El Niño, when warming Pacific Ocean waters near the equator tend to bring large amounts of rain and snow to California and the rest of the Southwest.

Federal forecasters this week upgraded this year’s potential El Niño from moderate to unusually strong status, although it’s not expected to match 1997-1998.

As for Tuesday’s storm, a just emerged crop of romaine lettuce seedlings that morning was drowned under several inches of water by afternoon with sprinkler pipes scattered across the muddy field like spaghetti.

Other fields that had just been planted that morning ready for seeding suffered similar fates.

Rain-soaked limp plants

Meanwhile, soggy cotton that hadn’t been harvested yet hung limply from plants. The quality will suffer because the moisture makes the cotton fibers stringy, says Kurt Nolte, executive director of the Yuma County Cooperative Extension.

Haystacks sat in inches of water, raising concerns about mold.

Dates OK

But the dates should be OK, said John Haydock, chief executive officer of Datepac.

A week ago it might have been a different story, he says, but the fruit is mature enough now. It is being harvested this month and the quality won’t be impacted.

“We passed that bullet,” Haydock said. “The great part about our product is that it takes a lot to have an impact.”

Hardest hit by the rainfall was the area south of the city of Yuma near Somerton from about County 10th Street to County 22nd Street, said Rick Sellers of Waymon Farms, who farms 4,000 acres in the Yuma Valley.

“Every bit of it got wet,” he said.

The National Weather Service reported rainfall of 4.6 inches in one place near Somerton between 4 and 7 p.m. Sellers topped that, saying a rain gage at his office near Highway 95 and Avenue I measured 5 inches.

Canal breach

It was even worse at the headquarters of Yuma County Water Users Association (YCWUA) at Avenue C and County 15th Street, where manager Tom Davis reported measured rainfall of 5.83 inches.

Even though steps were taken early in the storm to cut water from the East Main Canal, the heavy downpour, combined with drained water off the mesa and the sand it carried, breached the irrigation organization’s canals in several places.

It took out the service road and flooded homes in the nearby East Cocopah Reservation.

YCWUA management deployed heavy machinery and employees to the scene, where they worked alongside tribal officials to rescue and evacuate residents, Davis says.

“We had to use the front end loader to take people out in the bucket,” he said. “We are elated to report that nobody was harmed as a result of the breach.”

Since then, crews have worked “daylight to daylight” running heavy equipment and pumps to rebuild the road, repair the canal system, drain pools of water, and remove the sand that in some places plugged the canals.

Davis was hopeful the damaged part of the system would be repaired enough to begin delivering irrigation water again by early next week.

Some referred to the storm’s fury over the Somerton area as a 200-year flooding event.

Disaster for producers 

“Who would have expected that much rain?” asked Davis. “This has set back producers this season. It’s really been a disaster. Everyone was racing through thousands of acres getting fields ready and planting. Now they’ll need to do it all over again. It will be very costly for them.”

It takes months of hard work to prepare fields and it costs $4,500 to grow an acre of lettuce, said Nolte. “Now it’s completely destroyed,” he said looking over a flooded 60-acre field of romaine seedlings Wednesday.

It was a similar story for other nearby produce fields, wiping out crops that were scheduled for harvest in last November to early December. It’s a situation, Nolte says that could result in a shortage of lettuce and winter vegetables during the early winter.

Farmers scrambling

But it will be weeks before farmers can get back in their flooded fields to rework and replant, he says. The prospect has farmers scrambling to find dry ground to plant and hopefully fill the anticipated gap.

Just under one inch of rain ­– 0.91 inch – was recorded at Marine Corps Air Station Yuma, Leins says. While a new record for Yuma – the old record of 0.19 was set in 1896 – the rainfall over the city was considerably less than the deluge that hit the Somerton area.

About 2.5 inches fell at the headquarters of Yuma Mesa Irrigation and Drainage District, reported manager Pat Morgan.

“I think we came out of it pretty well. We never even shut off the water. We’re still irrigating.”

The mesa has sandier soil than the Yuma Valley and is home primarily to citrus and alfalfa, crops that bear up well to added moisture from rain, Morgan explains.

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And the Bard area across the Colorado River only got about one-third of an inch, says Ron Derma, manager of Bard Water District.

There was even less rainfall in the eastern part of Yuma County, Leins says. “Some spots didn’t get much.”

Playing catch-up

Sellers said, “We’ve got to play catch up. We need to find fields and get right back on schedule.

“It’s all about schedules. The shippers will be coming to Yuma and we’ve got to have something to put in those boxes. That’s what we do.”

And some sunshine would sure be nice.

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