Drought fears mounting in Merced County

rparsons@mercedsun-star.comJanuary 12, 2014 

Le Grand farmer Bob Giampaoli needs some rain. A lot of rain – and soon.

With water levels approaching near-historic lows at Lake McClure – and everywhere else in California – Giampaoli said he’s extremely concerned about his crops this year. “It’s very serious now and a lot of us are very worried,” Giampaoli said Friday. “There’s still a little time, maybe a few weeks or a month or so, for things to turn around. So, I’m just praying for rain like everybody else.”

Giampaoli, 52, grows tomatoes, bell peppers, alfalfa, corn and almonds and has been a farmer for more than 35 years. He’s also vice president of the Merced County Farm Bureau. “This is definitely the worst dry season that I’ve experienced,” he said.

If the situation doesn’t turn around quickly, Giampaoli said, he will have to focus on protecting his permanent crops first, possibly at the expense of other crops, and may consider not developing new ground.

According to the National Weather Service in Hanford, Merced County last received a measurable amount of rain on Dec. 7 and has seen about 1 inch of total rainfall since July 1. Merced County typically averages nearly 5 inches of rainfall during that period.

“It’s much, much drier than normal,” meteorologist David Spector said. “There’s a persistent ridge of high pressure that’s been near the coast at times or directly over us that’s being blocked in by arctic air in the eastern part of the country and that’s keeping the storm track well north of us.”

Spector said there’s “not really any” rain in sight in the near future, either. “There are some indications that the pattern could possibly change in the next 10 days or two weeks, but it’s too far out to know for sure or to know how much precipitation, if any, may come,” he said.

Merced Irrigation District officials are worried about the coming growing season. “Coming off two dry years in a row, this is the driest year maybe ever, as far as I’m concerned,” said John Sweigard, MID’s general manager.

The driest year on record is the 1976-77 season, according to Hicham Eltal, MID’s deputy general manager.

From October to December in 1976, about 6,414 acre-feet of water flowed into Lake McClure. During the same time period this year, the lake has received just 5,563 acre-feet of water, according to MID.

Last week, the state Department of Water Resources reported the state’s snowpack level is just 20 percent of the normal average and estimated being able to deliver just 5 percent of State Water Project water requested for the year.

Sweigard said demand for water has increased dramatically since the late 1970s. “There are more people in agriculture now, more regulations for environmental needs,” Sweigard said.

Like many irrigation districts, MID officials are drafting letters to state and federal officials to request certain environmental standards be relaxed, at least temporarily, to allow districts more flexibility with available water resources.

Gov. Jerry Brown’s recently formed drought task force met Thursday and plans to meet again this week to discuss a possible emergency drought declaration, according to Nancy Vogel, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Water Resources. “We’re anticipating that, if there’s no large amount of rain soon, we will make the recommendation to the governor’s office for a drought declaration,” she said. “We’re moving on the assumption that making that recommendation will be necessary.”

Specifics of such a declaration remain under discussion and it is still unclear exactly how much it would help.

“Even an emergency drought declaration won’t create more water,” Vogel said.

Staff writer Rob Parsons can be reached at rparsons@mercedsun-star.com or (209) 385-2482.

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