New forecast says El Nino may help Northern California – from the Sacramento Bee

Folsom Lake

Folsom Lake

By Dale Kasler and Phillip Reese

El Niño might put a dent in the drought after all.

In a revised forecast Thursday, the National Weather Service said Northern California stands a decent chance of getting significant precipitation from this winter’s El Niño weather pattern, a development that could help ease the state’s four-year drought.

Until now, forecasters have been saying this winter likely would bring heavy rains to Southern California, which is typical for El Niño, but they’ve been less certain about the outlook for the northern half of the state. Because the state’s major reservoirs are in the north, that’s where the rain and snow need to fall to substantially bolster the state’s water supplies.

Michelle Mead, a forecaster in the agency’s Sacramento office, said Sacramento and the Sacramento Valley have at least an 80 percent chance of seeing average precipitation this winter. The chance of above-average precipitation has been pegged at 34 percent to 40 percent, she said.

“Not that it will be a deluge and everybody needs to stop conserving water,” she said. The bulk of the precipitation will fall in December, January and February, she said.

William Patzert, a climate expert at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, was less circumspect, saying he’s convinced El Niño will be felt in Northern California. “At this point – at this particular time – this is too large too fail,” he said. “People like to be conservative. They don’t want to stick their neck out. But this is definitely the real deal.”

If history is a guide, California will see big snow in the northern mountains along with rain in the south, Patzert said. “The last two El Niños that were of this magnitude hosed all of California,” he said. “If you look at the snowpack for those two El Niños, you had double the snowpack, too.”

What’s changed since the weather service’s previous forecasts? Mead said analysts took a fresh look at previous winters and concluded that strong El Niños tend to bring heavy rains in the north. Other forecasters noted the persistence of this year’s El Niño and said temperature anomalies in the South Pacific are favorable to Northern California’s rain outlook.

“Moderate El Niños tend to get Southern California wet, and the strong ones get all of California wet,” said Jeffrey Mount, a water specialist at the Public Policy Institute of California. Mount said he’s encouraged that the so-called “ridiculously resilient ridge,” the high-pressure system that kept rain and snow from falling on California, is breaking down.

But Mount and Jay Lund, an engineer and watershed specialist at UC Davis, noted that the relative scarcity of strong El Niños – just six since 1957 – means it’s difficult to get too comfortable with the latest forecast.

“We have a small sample size,” Lund said. “There’s still a substantial probability that we’re going to be in a drought next year.”

State climatologist Michael Anderson, who has urged caution as El Niño fever has risen in the last few months, said he, too, thinks there’s a better chance of significant precipitation in Northern California. “As we get closer, we are seeing trajectories move in a more favorable outcome,” he said.

Anderson nonetheless encouraged Sacramento residents to continue to conserve water. He and others noted that the drought is so severe that even a huge rainfall year will not fully erase its effects. Plus, he said, “We want to wait until we actually see it.”

Mead said Sacramento received 13.8 inches of rain last winter, about 68 percent of average.

El Niño is a phenomenon linked to above-average water temperatures in the Pacific Ocean. Mead said the temperature is expected to peak at 2.5 degrees Celsius above normal this winter, ranking this among the strongest El Niños on record.

The latest forecast put the chance of El Niño striking at 95 percent, the same as a month ago.

Link to story

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CDFA Joins State in Celebrating National Hydrogen and Fuel Cell Day


California celebrates National Hydrogen and Fuel Cell Day today on the cusp of a transportation revolution that will lead to cleaner air and fewer greenhouse gas emissions as more drivers turn to zero-emission vehicles.

The U.S. Senate has declared Thursday, Oct. 8, 2015, National Hydrogen and Fuel Cell Day, referencing hydrogen’s standard atomic weight of 1.008 and in recognition that hydrogen is an abundant source of fuel, as well as cleaner and more efficient than petroleum.

California is a leader in developing and deploying hydrogen fuel cells for passenger vehicles, industrial vehicles and backup power for cell phone towers.

“California has long supported hydrogen and fuel cells as a vital zero-emission technology,” California Air Resources Board (ARB) Chair Mary D. Nichols said. “Transit customers in the Bay Area and Coachella Valley have enjoyed clean, quiet and powerful hydrogen fuel cell electric buses for years. California companies operate more efficiently by using hydrogen fuel cell electric forklifts in warehouses. Marking the first National Hydrogen and Fuel Cell Day in 2015 is particularly appropriate as auto companies begin selling consumer fuel cell electric vehicles to Californians.”

The California Energy Commission has provided funding for 49 retail hydrogen refueling stations anticipated to open over the next two years.

“Hydrogen fuel cell electric vehicles are an important part of the portfolio of technologies and fuels the State is pursuing to address our ambitious climate and air quality goals,” said Janea A. Scott, the lead commissioner for transportation at the Energy Commission. “Through an Energy Commission program, the State is investing in an initial network of up to 100 hydrogen stations to provide the needed fueling infrastructure to support fuel-cell electric vehicles.”

California’s investments in alternative fuel vehicles, like hydrogen fuel cell electric cars, are fueling the state’s economy and leading to cleaner air.

“Hydrogen and fuel cells are poised to play a significant role in California’s economic growth well into the future,” said Panorea Avdis, chief deputy director of the Governor’s Office of Business and Economic Development (GOBiz). “Together, hydrogen and fuel cells demonstrate that improving our environment is good for business.”

GOBiz provides vital assistance in the hydrogen fueling station permit process and helps station developers locate and expand in California.

The California Department of Food and Agriculture’s Division of Measurement Standards (CDFA DMS) evaluates and tests new hydrogen dispensers for suitability and accuracy, enabling retail stations to sell fuel to customers.  CDFA DMS is also the agency responsible for providing fuel quality sampling and laboratory analysis, which ensures the best possible vehicle performance.

“Instituting early marketplace oversight of hydrogen sold at retail will be a key component to successful consumer acceptance of this fuel,” said Kristin Macey, director of CDFA DMS.

The ARB partners with transit agencies to advance the adoption of hydrogen fuel cell electric buses. AC Transit operates 12 fuel cell electric buses in the San Francisco East Bay Area, and SunLine Transit operates four fuel cell electric buses in the Coachella Valley. Fuel cell electric buses are poised to enter the commercial market in California with larger pilot projects that may compete for funding under the ARB’s Low Carbon Transportation Program.

The ARB and the Energy Commission are founding members of the California Fuel Cell Partnership, a public-private collaboration committed to promoting fuel cell electric vehicle commercialization. The State also participates in H2USA, a public-private partnership to promote the commercial introduction and widespread adoption of hydrogen fuel cell electric vehicles across America. California participates in H2FIRST, an initiative of U.S. Department of Energy’s Fuel Cell Technologies Office within the Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy, Sandia National Laboratory and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, to support customer-friendly fueling stations and advance hydrogen fueling technology for a commercial market.

About the California Energy Commission

The California Energy Commission is the state’s primary energy policy and planning agency. The agency was established by the California Legislature through the Warren-Alquist Act in 1974. It has seven core responsibilities: advancing state energy policy, encouraging energy efficiency, certifying thermal power plants, investing in energy innovation, developing renewable energy, transforming transportation, and preparing for energy emergencies.

About the Governor’s Office of Business and Economic Development (GO-Biz)

GO-Biz was created by Governor Edmund G. Brown Jr. to serve as California’s single point of contact for economic development and job creation efforts. GO-Biz offers a range of services to business owners including: attraction, retention and expansion services, site selection, permit streamlining, clearing of regulatory hurdles, small business assistance, international trade development, assistance with state government, and much more.

About the Air Resources Board

ARB’s mission is to promote and protect public health, welfare, and ecological resources through effective reduction of air pollutants while recognizing and considering effects on the economy. The ARB oversees all air pollution control efforts in California to attain and maintain health based air quality standards.

About the California Department of Food and Agriculture

The California Department of Food and Agriculture promotes and protects California’s food supply and environment, and it ensures fair and accurate commerce through oversight by its Division of Measurement Standards. California’s $54 billion agriculture industry leads the nation, providing nearly half of US-grown fruits, nuts and vegetables, and about 20 percent of its dairy products.   

Link to news release at California Energy Commission



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California to benefit from Trans-Pacific Partnership

The USDA has released a series of fact sheets illustrating how the newly reached Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) agreement can boost the U.S. agriculture industry, supporting more American jobs and driving the nation’s rural economy. Created by the USDA’s Foreign Agricultural Service (FAS), the fact sheets graphically depict how each state and individual commodities stand to benefit from increased agricultural trade with the 11 other TPP countries.

Trade ministers from Australia, Brunei, Canada, Chile, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore, the United States and Vietnam concluded TPP negotiations on Oct. 5 in Atlanta, Ga. Trade with these countries accounted for 42 percent of U.S. agricultural exports in 2014, contributing $63 billion to the U.S. economy.

Here is the fact sheet for California.

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Growing California video series – Apple Hill

This is a reprise post from our Growing California video series. Apple Hill is now open for its annual fall run in El Dorado County.

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USDA Awards $34.3 Million to Support Communities’ Local Foods Infrastructure, Increase Access to Fruits and Vegetables

Funding Supports Local Food Systems, Farmers Markets and Healthier Eating for SNAP Participants

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack helped to kick off the nation’s harvest season this week by announcing nearly $35 million in new funding through four grant programs to support local and regional food systems, including farmers markets. Secretary Vilsack has named strengthening local food systems as one of the four pillars of USDA’s efforts to revitalize rural economies and communities. Purchases of locally-produced food have surged to nearly $12 billion under Secretary Vilsack’s leadership, while the number of farmers markets has exploded to more than 8,500 from 5,274 in 2009.

The announcement is part of a USDA-wide effort to support President Obama’s commitment to strengthening local and regional food systems. These grants are administered by USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS) and Food and Nutrition Service (FNS). Under the current Administration, AMS and FNS have partnered to boost affordable access to local, fresh and healthy foods, which creates a gateway to opportunity for small and mid-size producers and benefits the health of all Americans, regardless of income levels.

“USDA is helping to create economic opportunities for producers, increase access to fresh, healthy food for consumers, and connect rural and urban communities across the country,” said Secretary Vilsack. “Each of the grants announced targets a unique part of the growing market for local foods. We are also expanding access for current SNAP participants to the wonderful array of fresh produce at America’s farmers markets, which is important to a healthy diet.”

USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service is awarding $13.3 million in Farmers Market Promotion Program grants to 164 marketing and promotion projects involved with farmers markets, Community Supported Agriculture (CSAs), and other direct-to-consumer outlets for local food. Since 2009, this program has funded 902 projects totaling over $59.2 million to support direct marketing efforts for local food.

  • These grants include four projects in California – Fresno, Oakland, Los Angeles and American Canyon.

AMS is also awarding $11.9 million in Local Food Promotion Program grants to 160 marketing and promotion projects for intermediary local food enterprises such as food hubs, aggregation businesses, local food processors, and farm-to-institution activities. This program, begun in 2014, has funded 351 projects totaling $24.6 million to support local/regional supply chain activities including processing, aggregating, storing or distributing local and regional food.

  • These grants include 17 California projects, ranging from implementing a Joint Powers Agreement (JPA) for local food procurement for school districts in the Pittsburg, CA area, to a cafe and cannery in San Francisco to teach culinary skills and offer leadership training for the low access/low income community.

And AMS is awarding $1 million in matching-grant funds through the Federal-State Marketing Improvement Program. These funds are awarded through State departments of agriculture and other agencies, as well as State colleges and universities. The matching funds will support 15 research projects to find solutions to challenges and opportunities in marketing, transporting, and distributing U.S. agricultural products domestically and internationally. Since 2009, this program has funded 142 projects totaling $8.6 million to explore new market opportunities for U.S. food and agricultural products.

Both the Farmers Market and the Local Food Promotion Programs were made possible by the 2014 Farm Bill. A description of the projects funded by each of these programs is available on the AMS website.

USDA’s Food and Nutrition Service (FNS) administers the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) Farmers Market Support Grants, which is awarding $8.1 million in grants for projects in 23 states to enhance the effectiveness of SNAP operations at farmers markets. The new funds support broad SNAP-related activities and costs, including staff training and technical assistance, creating educational materials, and raising awareness among current SNAP participants that their benefits may be used to purchase the healthy, fresh foods at these outlets. Farmers market organizations and associations, non-profit entities, state, local and tribal nations and other organizations engaged in farmers market management were eligible to apply. Grantees will be able to help connect low-income families with fresh, healthy, local food options by expanding SNAP use at these markets. From 2009 to 2014, SNAP redemptions at farmers markets have grown by 350 percent. A description of the projects funded is available on the FNS website.

  • Seven California projects received funding to support SNAP outreach, staffing and other efforts at farmers’ markets.

Vilsack continued, “We will continue supporting local and regional food systems, which are drawing young people back to agriculture, generating jobs, and improving quality of life in rural communities. Since 2009, we have seen a 75% growth in farmers markets nationwide and sales of local food rose to an estimated $12 billion in 2014, much of it through sales from farms to local grocers, institutions and restaurants.”

See the original USDA news release here.

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UC Berkeley to lead study of crop drought tolerance

orghum at the UC Kearney Agricultural Research and Extension Center, where field testing will take place next year. (Photo by Peggy Lemaux)

Sorghum at the UC Kearney Agricultural Research and Extension Center, where field testing will take place next year. (Photo by Peggy Lemaux)

By Sarah Yang

UC Berkeley is leading a $12.3 million project funded by the U.S. Department of Energy to examine the role of epigenetics in allowing plants to survive in drought conditions, an increasing concern for agriculture as the effects of climate change are felt in California and globally.

UC Berkeley researchers will partner with scientists at UC Agriculture and Natural Resources, the Energy Department’s Joint Genome Institute and that agency’s Pacific Northwest National Laboratory on the five-year project, called Epigenetic Control of Drought Response in Sorghum, or EPICON.

The grant comes in the midst of a historic drought in California. Over three years of field testing, researchers will dissect mechanisms by which sorghum, a close relative of corn, is able to survive water deprivation.

Peggy Lemaux, cooperative extension specialist at UC Berkeley’s Department of Plant and Microbial Biology, is heading the entire project. Co-investigators are Devin Coleman-Derr, Elizabeth Purdom and John Taylor from UC Berkeley; Jeffrey Dahlberg and Robert Hutmacher from UC Agriculture and Natural Resources; Chia-Lin Wei from the DOE Joint Genome Institute; and Christer Jansson from the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory.

“Historically, the genetic manipulation of crops, which has been critical to increasing agricultural productivity, has concentrated on altering the plant’s genetic sequence, encoded in its DNA,” said Lemaux. “However, recent studies have shown that environmental stresses – in our case drought – can lead to epigenetic changes in a plant’s genetic information. Because epigenetic changes occur without altering the underlying DNA sequence, they allow plants to respond to a changing environment more quickly.”

Over the next three years, a variety of observable plant traits will be followed, such as plant height and grain yield. In addition, leaf and root samples will be taken to investigate responses to drought at the molecular level, including how gene expression changes and which proteins and metabolites are altered.

Researchers will also be tracking changes in the sorghum-associated microbial communities to determine whether they correlate with changes that directly contribute to the crop’s drought tolerance. It is now well known that associations of specific bacteria and fungi with plants and animals have positive effects on host fitness. For example, microbes in both plants and humans are known to help fight disease and, in the soil, can help deliver nutrients and other resources to plants.

EPICON efforts will generate a variety of large datasets, which will be shared via an open, online platform that will include methods and results.

“Availability of this data in an open forum will enable comparative genomic studies by other scientists,” said Coleman-Derr, a UC Berkeley adjunct assistant professor in plant and microbial biology. “Being able to analyze the large datasets in an integrated fashion will enable a more thorough understanding of the complex and interconnected processes responsible for sorghum’s ability to respond positively to drought.”

The researchers expect that the project will allow better predictions of how sorghum and other cereal crops are affected by future climate scenarios, and will lead to approaches to improve growth and production of sorghum and other crops under water-limiting conditions in commercial fields and on marginal lands.

The Energy Department’s Genomic Science Program is funding this project through its Office of Biological and Environmental Research.

Link to item at UC Berkeley web site

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USDA seeks nominations for National Organic Standards Board

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) is seeking nominations to fill a vacancy on the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) for an environmentalist or resource conservationist.  The board positions are specifically designated to represent various sectors of the organic community, including those who have expertise in areas of environmental protection and resource conservation, own or operate an organic production or handling operation, or own or operate a retail establishment with significant trade in organic products.

The NOSB, established under the Organic Foods Production Act and operating in accordance with the Federal Advisory Committee Act, is responsible for reviewing materials and/or recommending changes to the National List of Allowed and Prohibited Substances, and advising the Secretary of Agriculture on other aspects of the USDA organic regulations.

The environmentalist or resource conservationist selected to fill the current vacancy (created by a recent resignation) will serve from January 24, 2016 to January 23, 2020, the remainder of the former board member’s term.  On April 8, 2015, USDA invited nominations for an additional five vacancies on the NOSB.  All six board appointments will serve terms beginning on January 24, 2016, and will be announced in the near future.

Written nominations, with cover letters, resumes, and a required form (available on the USDA website), must be postmarked on or before October 29, 2015.  All applicable information should be sent to Michelle Arsenault, National Organic Program, USDA–AMS–NOP, 1400 Independence Avenue, SW., Room 2648, Ag Stop 0268, Washington, D.C. 20250.

To learn more about the NOSB and the nomination process, visit the AMS website.  For more information, contact Michelle Arsenault at (202) 997-0115 or via email at


Link to news release

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Assessments underway for USDA post-fire assistance in California

Firefighters monitor a backfire as they try to contain the Butte fire near San Andreas

In the wake of the Valley and Butte fires, the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) and Farm Service Agency (FSA) staffs in California are meeting with landowners and Agencies to assess damages and offer technical and financial assistance where possible.

Assistance programs through NRCS include the Emergency Watershed Protection Program (EWP), and the Environmental Quality Incentives Program’s (EQIP) Catastrophic Fire Recovery assistance; FSA provides the Environmental Conservation Program (ECP).

Watershed Assistance

“EWP allows us to provide immediate assistance to communities to mitigate potential hazards to life and property resulting from the fires,” said Carlos Suarez, NRCS California state conservationist.“It is work we can do with a local sponsor to help a damaged watershed channel water and mitigate erosion so that lives and property are protected and additional hardships are not heaped upon the devastated community.”

With the high potential for winter rains, burned areas are at greater risk for erosion and mudflows and EWP-type services are key to preventing further damage. The program requires local government bodies or others to sponsor on-the-ground work including concrete barriers and debris basins, mulching, straw wattles and other damage control measures. Potential sponsors are encouraged to contact NRCS for more information.

Farmer/Rancher Assistance

EQIP and ECP programs can provide long-term support to repair livestock fencing, remove dead or dying trees, clear dense brush, install new livestock water facilities, and other agricultural services. Both NRCS and FSA are taking applications and encourage interested landowners to contact their local offices for more information.

The Valley Fire was centered in Lake, Napa and Sonoma counties and the Butte Fire was centered in Amador and Calaveras counties. While support to impacted landowners in these areas are an immediate focus for USDA, farmers and ranchers elsewhere in the state are also eligible for post-fire assistance within 18 months of the fire.

“FSA has a number of programs to help wildfire-impacted producers get back on their feet,” said Oscar Gonzales, FSA executive director in California. “I want to encourage farmers and ranchers to contact their local FSA office to find out about resources available to them.”

For more information on available NRCS or FSA assistance, contact a local field office, or visit


Link to news release

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2015 water year hottest and driest on record – from the California Department of Water Resources


The turn of the calendar from September to October each year goes without fanfare in most of California, but for the Department of Water Resources’ (DWR) State Water Project (SWP), each October 1 is the start of a new water year. Water Year 2015 has been noteworthy for much less precipitation than normal in California, temperatures much warmer than normal and a growing El Niño in the Eastern Pacific that many Californians hope will end the state’s drought. Most of all, Water Year 2015 will be remembered as the fourth year of one of the state’s most severe dry periods on record.

Water year 2015 continued the trend of surface water shortages for many urban and agricultural agencies. Most notably, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation’s Central Valley Project again had record low deliveries of zero project water to its north-of-Delta and south-of-Delta agricultural contractors and to agricultural contractors in its Friant Division. The SWP provided only 20 percent of its urban and agricultural contractors’ requested amounts. Statewide, the only bright picture was the Colorado River service area, where contractors for this interstate supply continued to receive their full allotments.

A look back at the water year would not be complete without noting the water conservation efforts undertaken in earnest by Californians following Governor Edmund G. Brown Jr.’s April 1 executive order mandating a statewide 25-percent reduction in potable urban water use. Save Our Water, DWR’s partnership with the Association of California Water Agencies, ramped up its conservation messaging, as did water agencies and municipalities. Many of them encouraged residents to conserve by offering turf and appliance rebate programs. In August, DWR launched its own program with rebates up to $2,000 for turf replacement and $100 for households that replace an inefficient toilet (details here). By late summer, statewide urban water consumption was about 30 percent lower than during the same months in 2013, according to the State Water Resources Control Board.

The statewide snowpack on April 1 held only 5 percent of the average water content on that date in records dating to 1950. The previous low record of 25 percent of average was set in 1977 during one of California’s most significant droughts and was tied in 2014. Of the nine April 1 snowpack values below 50 percent of average since 1950, three have occurred in the past three years of drought.

Lower-than-average precipitation and record warm temperatures during the traditional winter wet season produced the diminished snowpack. According to the California Climate Tracker, the winter average minimum temperature for the Sierra Nevada region was 32.1 degrees Fahrenheit, the first time this value was above water’s freezing point in 120 years of record-keeping. The few winter storms of the past two years were warmer than average and tended to produce rain, not snow.

Most of the rainfall in Northern California, the SWP’s primary water supply region, occurs from November through March, but with virtually no snow in the mountains to melt, storage in the state’s reservoirs also has been much lower than average. DWR continuously tracks storage in 154 reservoirs around the state, and as Water Year 2015 ends, they hold only 54 percent of their historic average. Storage in Northern California’s major reservoirs (as percentages of their historic averages for this time of year) also is far below normal: Lake Shasta (59%), Lake Oroville (48%), Trinity Lake (33%), Folsom Lake (32%) and New Melones (20%).

As the reservoirs’ storage continued to decline, DWR determined that a temporary emergency drought barrier was needed on West False River to block salt water intrusion into the central Delta. The barrier was an essential part of DWR’s strategy to maintain good water quality in the Delta and preserve water in upstream reservoirs to help keep young salmon cool enough to stay alive downstream of dams. The barrier was in place by June, and dismantling began in early September. Removal will be complete by mid-November.

Water Year 2016 – the El Niño Question

The periodic warming of surface waters in the equatorial Eastern Pacific Ocean, known as El Niño, was first observed in the 1800s and has been studied intensely for its observable effect on weather patterns around the world – including, on occasion, heavy precipitation in California. El Niños are categorized as weak, moderate or strong depending on how much the surface temperatures increase and on certain atmospheric measurements. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Climate Prediction Center, there is about a 95 percent chance of a strong El Niño during the coming winter, meaning the water temperature will be 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit or more warmer than normal.

Six strong El Niño events since 1950 produced wet conditions in Southern California, but only the strongest ones in water years 1983 and 1998 brought significant precipitation throughout the state. In the four other strong El Niño years, the critical up-state water-collecting regions received far less rainfall. As Water Year 2015 draws to a close, it is still too soon to know whether the building El Niño will be a drought-buster or simply a bust.

As it does during every water year, DWR will continuously monitor precipitation totals and reservoir storage as California enters its traditional wet season. The first media-oriented manual snow survey of the winter will be conducted in the Sierra Nevada east of Sacramento around January 1. That survey may provide an indication of whether Water Year 2016 will see enough precipitation and enough snowpack to move California closer to the end of the drought. A fifth year of drought certainly is a possibility. California has experienced two six-year droughts in the past nine decades – 1929-34 and 1987-92.

California has been dealing with the effects of drought for four years. To learn about all the actions the state has taken to manage our water system and cope with the impacts of the drought, visit Drought.CA.Gov. Every Californian should take steps to conserve water; find out how at

Link to DWR News Release

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Exports suffer as California rice crop takes hit in drought – from the Sacramento Bee

Photo by Lezlie Sterling - Sacramento Bee

Photo by Lezlie Sterling – Sacramento Bee

By Ryan Lillis

It’s harvest time in Sacramento Valley rice country, and like a lot of farmers in the state, rice grower Fritz Durst loves the idea that California agriculture helps feed the world.

It’s more than an idle boast. Traditionally, nearly half of the state’s agricultural output is shipped each year to international destinations, from Mexico to the Middle East, yielding $20 billion annually in sales.

This year is shaping up differently, however. A fourth debilitating year of drought has put California’s role in the global food chain to a test. Some commodities are coming up short, and exports are beginning to suffer.

Anxiety about the shift runs high in the Sacramento Valley. The rice crop is likely to run at least 30 percent smaller than normal because of water shortages. As a result, Northern California growers have lost customers in traditionally strong markets in the Mediterranean and Middle East.

Rice grown in Arkansas and other Southern states has filled much of the void, along with rice from Europe and Australia. It’s likely just a temporary shift. But after back-to-back years of weak crops, some Sacramento Valley growers are starting to worry about their long-term international prospects even if El Niño packs a serious punch this winter, as some forecasters predict.

“I’m concerned because once you lose a market … people get accustomed to someone else’s product,” said Durst, a fifth-generation Knights Landing farmer, as he trudged through one of his fallowed fields. Durst, who grows rice and other commodities in Yolo and Colusa counties, planted just 300 acres of rice this year, half the normal amount.

Many trade experts say California should be able to recapture the lost overseas markets once the drought ends, water supplies improve and the rice crop bounces back. Sacramento Valley rice, widely found in sushi restaurants, is considered superior in quality to what’s grown in the South. Even California’s competitors say so.

“We’re not a threat to California,” said Bobby Coats, a farm economist and trade expert at the University of Arkansas. “Any market share we gain from California will not be sustained in the future, end of story, until we come up with a better product.”

Nevertheless, some doubts have crept in among California rice exporters. Along with the effects of the drought, they’re also getting clobbered by the strength of the dollar, which makes U.S. goods more expensive overseas. Southern farmers obviously have to deal with a strong dollar, too, but they have lower growing costs and can sell their rice for about one-third less than their California counterparts.

Eager to capitalize on California’s drought, Southern farmers last year doubled their production of medium-grain rice, the variety that’s often exported. Figures for this year aren’t yet available, but it’s clear the Southern growers are making inroads in countries such as Lebanon, Turkey, Libya and Jordan.

“Those countries will take Southern rice if the California rice is not available,” said Nathan Childs, a U.S. Department of Agriculture economist. “This movement was caused by the drought. It was not a change in preference caused by taste.”

One boon for California is that sales to the major export markets, Japan and South Korea, have remained intact, said Kirk Messick, senior vice president at Farmers’ Rice Cooperative, a Sacramento-based marketing company. Messick said he thinks the other customers eventually will return.

For now, though, Messick said the loss of business in the Middle East and Mediterranean have hurt. Overall exports have fallen by more than 20 percent in the past year, and the prospects for this year’s stunted crop aren’t terrific.

“We’re going to lose demand,” Messick said. “We could lose domestic markets as well.”

The concerns aren’t limited to the rice business. The supply of almonds, one of the most important commodities grown in California, is expected to shrink by 4 percent. “We’ll just have to see how we can best satisfy that demand as the year progresses with a smaller crop,” said Julie Adams, a vice president of the Almond Board of California, in an email. California growers sold $4.2 billion worth of almonds overseas in 2013, more than any other commodity. More recent figures weren’t available.

Pistachio production seems to have been hurt by the drought as well, although it’s too soon to say how big the crop will be and what impact that will have on sales to China and other key markets. “With the high demand that has been in place for pistachios around the world, we could sell much more than what we have,” said Richard Matoian, executive director of American Pistachio Growers, a trade group based in Fresno.

Jock O’Connell, a Sacramento economist and trade consultant, said international food processors and importers are growing restless about California’s weather patterns and water supplies, and are exploring alternatives.

“Guys overseas are pretty shrewd,” said O’Connell, who analyzes international trade trends for Beacon Economics of Los Angeles. “They’re looking around and saying, ‘How reliable will California growers be,’ and they have plenty of reason to be skeptical.

“There’s a lot of talk in the ag sector about the danger of (California farmers) becoming unreliable suppliers,” he added. “There’s a chance it will open up opportunities for growers in other regions of the U.S., and other countries.”

The California Department of Food and Agriculture says California exported $704 million worth of rice in 2013, the last year for which figures are available. That year, some 560,000 acres were harvested, a fairly typical season. This year, the harvest will encompass only 375,000 acres, according to the California Rice Commission. Export sales are sure to fall.

Ordinarily this is Durst’s favorite season, the two-week sprint to bring in the rice crop. “It’s like watching your child graduate from college,” he said. “It’s what you work for.”

This year, with only half his rice fields planted, the experience is bittersweet.

The sharp cutbacks have as much to do with the timing of water deliveries from the state’s government-run plumbing network as they do with the total supply of water. Compared with areas south of the Delta, water is actually fairly plentiful in the Sacramento Valley. But this spring, regulators kept more water than usual in storage at Lake Shasta, as part of a complicated effort to keep water temperatures lower in the reservoir to assist winter-run Chinook salmon. That meant much of the water didn’t arrive in time for spring planting.

“We couldn’t get our water deliveries when we needed them,” Durst said.

It was hardly a financial loss for most farmers. Though they couldn’t plant their full crops, many in the Sacramento Valley were able to sell much of the water that did arrive. A deal with the San Luis Delta-Mendota Water Authority, a large agricultural agency in the parched San Joaquin Valley, generated plenty of revenue: more than $600 per acre-foot of water.

Durst, one of those who participated in the sale, said he’ll probably make more money from that transaction than he would producing rice. But he called water sales a “Band-Aid” and not a permanent fix for the Sacramento Valley’s water problems.

“My business is to grow rice,” Durst said, adding that the massive fallowing has hurt the regional economy. “Some of the rice warehouses are struggling because they don’t have enough inventory. The trickle-down effect is going to be felt here.”

The impact is global. California rice farmers have spent decades pushing to get their products sold overseas, with considerable success. While California generates only a quarter of U.S. rice production, until recently it has been responsible for a third of the exports. A big part of the story is a 1993 trade agreement known as the Uruguay Round, which opened doors in Japan and South Korea. All told, anywhere from 55 percent to 65 percent of the California rice crop is exported, Messick said.

Now, the industry worries about backsliding.

“You work very hard to gain markets and it takes a long time to gain those markets back,” said Tim Johnson, president of the rice commission. “Next year is far from certain, even if we have a normal planting year.”

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