February 25, 2014

County supervisors declare drought emergency

County officials on Tuesday declared a local emergency because of the drought, lamenting its detrimental impacts to area farmers.

County officials on Tuesday declared a local emergency because of the drought, lamenting its detrimental effects on area farmers.

“I think we’re looking at a severe economic loss to agriculture next year,” Merced County Agricultural Commissioner David Robinson said at the Board of Supervisors meeting Tuesday. “Some folks are going to be going out of business this year.”

Water levels in Merced County’s two reservoirs continue to dip, prompting the Board of Supervisors on Tuesday to proclaim the local emergency. Although forecasters predict some rain in the next few days, experts say it won’t be nearly enough to make up for months of dry weather.

Rain and snow would have to fall heavily every other day from now to May to get reservoir levels to where they need to be, said Cal Fire Battalion Chief Jeremy Rahn, who is also the deputy director of administration for the county’s Office of Emergency Services.

According to statistics from the state Department of Water Resources, Exchequer Reservoir had stored 213,924 acre-feet of water as of Monday, only 21 percent of its capacity. It usually stores an average of 527,404 acre-feet this time of year, the agency says.

The San Luis Reservoir had stored 678,066 acre-feet of water, or 33 percent of its capacity, as of Monday, the DWR reported. On average, it holds 1,719,486 acre-feet of water at this point, according to the agency. An acre-foot is the amount of water it would take to cover one acre 1 foot deep.

Merced Irrigation District spokesman Mike Jensen said the district has just 70,000 to 80,000 acre-feet of water available for its use in Lake McClure. MID saw 5,500 acre-feet of inflow to McClure during October, November and December; on average 66,000 acre-feet flow into the lake.

County supervisors Tuesday stressed the importance of conservation efforts, pointing to the trickle-down effect from what’s shaping up to be the driest year on record.

“This is pretty severe and the impact is what it’s going to do for employment,” said District 1 Supervisor John Pedrozo. The costs of crop production will escalate, he said, and farmers will have to reduce the number of laborers they use.

One of the growers affected by the water shortfall is 68-year-old Bob Weimer. The lifelong farmer grows peaches, almonds, walnuts and sweet potatoes in Livingston and Atwater.

“We’ve gone ahead and fallowed some ground already. We won’t even put a crop on it,” Weimer said Tuesday. “That’s going to impact our operation and the people we would normally hire to harvest and pick the food. We have less hours for people, and there’s no place for these people to go.”

Weimer said he normally hires eight people to harvest sweet potatoes, but that number is down to six. Overall, he said, about 20 people will be out of a job at his operation because of the dry conditions this year.

The drought is especially problematic because it comes on the heels of several dry years, he added.

“It’s the third year of the drought and it’s by far the most significant we’ve had that I can recall,” Weimer said. “With the reservoir being as low as it is, we are now tapping hard into our groundwater supply.”

Gov. Jerry Brown on Jan. 17 declared a state of emergency and directed state officials to take necessary actions to prepare for the drought. Merced County’s response Tuesday included reducing irrigation at county parks and using water-efficient landscaping.

Notices promoting water conservation were sent to tenants at Castle Commerce Center and included in residents’ garbage bills, said county spokesman Mike North. The county also plans public outreach such as radio advertising.

Forecasters predict some rainfall beginning today.

Two storms are moving into Merced County, said Brian Ochs, meteorologist at the National Weather Service in Hanford.

The first storm will bring a little more than a half-inch of rain, Ochs said, before moving out of the area. There’s a 90 percent chance of rain on Friday and possibly through the weekend. “Looks like there will be a continued chance of rain into Saturday, but most of the rain will be done by Saturday night,” he noted.

Merced has received 0.94 inches of rain since Jan. 1, Ochs said. The average for this time of year is 4.60 inches.


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