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Water still a hot topic for farmers

Even though California was doused with more rain than it could handle in the spring, farmers are still worried about the water issue.

Farmers were happy with the spring weather, but are now worried that most of that water, which has been in the snowpack, will just run out to the Pacific Ocean. Also, there isn’t any guarantee that next year’s rainfall will come close to this year’s.

“We were blessed this year,” said Creekside Farming president and Madera County Farm Bureau president Jay Mahil. “Coming from five years of drought, having a really good storm pack that we have this year is phenomenal. We are still leery of what next year will bring. It’s not that we’re out of the woods. It’s still worrisome. Flying over the Sierras, there was a lot of snow up there. These warm temperatures make the rivers flow to capacity and the flow-ways are spilling over. It’s a shame that we’re having to melt that snowpack and let it run down the ocean. As farmers, we can only use so much. We’re going to lose a lot of it. It’s very discouraging.”

Mahil is worried about the misconception that since it rained, the farmers should be happy. However, that is far from the point. They are thrilled to get the surface water, but they are discouraged seeing their reserve wash through the Central Valley rivers.

“What people don’t understand is that it rained and it should take care of your crops,” Mahil said. “That’s just one part of it. Then, there’s the snowpack, which is our savings account, but when that savings account gets cashed out quickly, we can’t use it. We need a timed water use. Over the month, we can only use so much. We can’t just dump it onto the fields. That’s why the system was built so we can have a more controlled water season. The dams were built to control the water.”

In the spring, when the rains fell in the Central Valley, famers didn’t have to start their wells and relied on the surface water and the flood releases.

“Early on, since we had so much moisture and the soil profiles were filled to capacity, we didn’t have to start our deep wells up. We were able to prolong those. With the flood releases, MID and Chowchilla started their irrigation a lot earlier. We were able to irrigate with surface water rather than deep well water. On our operation, all of our deep wells have been shut down. We have been taking surface water only. Last year, it was the opposite. We were able to preserve our well water.”

With the water, Mahil is hopeful that the wells around Madera County will see a rise.

“The snowpack will replenish our well water,” Mahil said. “It’s not the savior. It’s not going to come up 10-20 feet in one year. It will benefit. It may come up 4-5 feet, depending on where you’re at. It will be a net positive.”

There are benefits with receiving surface waters on the crops, Mahil said. The water coming through is pure water and doesn’t go through a well.

“When we’re pumping water, we’re pumping water with contaminates and salts that aren’t the greatest for the crops,” Mahil said. “We have no choice. That’s all we have. We have to treat it or put in soil amendments to help the soil out. As a resident of Madera County, your domestic wells should come up. All of the canals are running, as well as the Kings and Fresno river. All the rivers are running, which will help the residential person and raise the water table. Even if it’s 3-4 feet of water filling a well, it’s more than they had last year. If it’s the difference of drilling a well, they’ll take it.”

Because of the pure water running through the crops, Mahil is confident that the product will be much better than during drought years.

“The crops will be a lot better this year because of the rains we had,” Mahil said. “Usually the wet years result in better crops. The soil gets leeched out and those roots have fresh soil and fresh growing areas. We will probably have better quality. Early on, the weather was pretty cool so the crops were flourishing. The sizes of grapes got better, almonds got better and pistachios. All in all, we’ll have a better crop and quality this year.”

Although it has been hot in the Central Valley during the summer, it’s been about the same as previous summers.

“We’re getting close to an average season,” Mahil said. “We’re in between last year’s early season and an average season.

“The heat isn’t different than the past. We worry. There’s two folds to it. First is are our crops going to suffer? Do we have enough water to irrigate and keep those crops significantly hydrated? Is there going to be any crop damage with the excessive heat? We worry about that. The second thing is our employees. We worry about the high heat and have people work in those conditions. In our operation, we’ve cut back on hours and started earlier to get them out of the heat earlier. When those temperatures got to about 110, it was just miserable to be out there.”

One of the advantages of getting plenty of surface water is that farmers didn’t have to run their pumps as much.

“We’re not having to put the wear and tear on our wells, which is costly,” Mahil said. “Everybody could agree with that. The last five years in the drought, your well going out, getting a well drilled or repaired, was very stressful for growers and residents. In that point, we were very fortunate that the burden was lifted off our shoulders and we had a secondary source of water to utilize that’s a better source to have.”

Early in the spring, the Madera Irrigation District and Chowchilla’s irrigation district tried to get as much water to the farmers as possible, free of charge.

“A lot of growers took part in that,” Mahil said. “We ran every well possible to flood out as much of our properties as we could to saturate our soil to help us run the water at a later time because there was ample moisture on our fields. We all have to do our part, especially when there was no cost to that water to be able to bank that water in Madera County. Both MID, the city and Chowchilla, had more recharge basins fill up and percolate that water back into the ground to help our aquifer out. To this day, MID and Chowchilla have created recharge basins they keep putting water into to help certain areas out with groundwater recharge.”

When Mahil sees the rivers flowing through the Central Valley, he’s discouraged that there isn’t a plan in place to keep this water for California residents.

“It’s frustrating and difficult at the same time to try to find a way to keep this water,” Mahil said. “They say we can’t do it. If we had some of that infrastructure, how tremendous of a help it would be in years like this and we can probably save ourselves a couple of years of anguish. It would be a great benefit for everybody in the state, not just for the agriculture community. Going through this drought and people have been mandated for watering their lawns, hopefully will open eyes that water storage isn’t just for agriculture, but for everybody. That’s the message we need to carry forward. It’s not going to benefit agriculture, but any storage we build will benefit everybody.”

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