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Merced-area's farmers not panicking yet over dry winter

A dry start to the winter season has many California growers concerned, but Merced County farmers may have reason to remain optimistic.

Fear of another drought remains real, but many think it's not quite time to panic.

"The one thing that makes our situation better than, say, Fresno County, is our irrigation districts," said University of California Cooperative Extension adviser Scott Stoddard. "Potentially (a dry year) could be detrimental to us, but because we had a wet winter last year and because of our superior irrigation on the west side, this year it looks like the county will be OK for water."

Merced County's two biggest irrigation districts boast important advantages. The Merced Irrigation District has a relatively full reservoir because of solid years of rain and snow over the previous year. And the Central California Irrigation District in Los Banos has superior water rights, which means farmers get priority access to water, particularly over farmers located farther south.

"We have some of the oldest, most secure rights in California," said Chris White, general manager of the Central California district. "From that situation we're situated very well. But the question is relative. A dry winter makes us all nerv-ous."

Many of the smaller water districts in the county could feasibly cut back on deliveries if the lack of precipitation continued, he said, adding that even with adequate irrigation many farmers benefit greatly from direct rainfall. But for those growing grains and alfalfa, "they're in a tough situation," he said.

Larry Newman, ranch manager for J. Marchini Farms, said the situation is "nerve-wracking" but it's hard to say what will happen this year. "Nothing irrigates like Mother Nature," he said.

Newman said that, of the crops he oversees, the wheat fields are in an especially tough spot because the seeds that were planted earlier in the season have already been germinated by short bursts of precipitation.

"I've planted a lot of wheat that's just sitting there," he said. "If you don't have any deep moisture and the frost zaps the water out of the ground, the fields dry up. If the seed was just sitting there and it hadn't started germinating, then you could just wait for rain. It's a timing thing."

Some remain optimistic.

"This year, we're still hoping for that miracle March," Stoddard said. "We can get these wet storms that start pounding the state. We can go from 10 percent to 110 percent of water in one month."

Valley farmers were hoping for at least a couple years of rain before the state gets hit with another measurable drought, especially because groundwater supplies that helped many regional farmers through recent dry times have yet to recharge.

Reporter Joshua Emerson Smith can be reached at (209) 385-2486 or jsmith@mercedsunstar.com.

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