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Stories from the valley

Doesn’t look like much of a drought from above but the reality is far different

Contributed by Tim Johnson

The drought does not look bad from the window seat of a plane coming into Sacramento International Airport. The reality is far different.

Unlike the urban lawns or those at the State Capitol, the impacts on agriculture, including rice, are not half–brown crops but rather fallow fields.

Farmers have made significant cuts as a direct result of the drought. In the case of rice, fully 30 percent fewer acres were planted this year as growers adapted to water cuts.

Aerials new Willows CA, Tuesday, July 21, 2015. Photo Brian Baer

These reductions translate to 175,000 fewer acres planted to rice. Look closely out the plane window and these fields show up as the neat brown squares alongside the vibrant green of the rice fields of the Sacramento Valley.

This approach is not unlike the drought cuts I made at my house. I didn’t plant my garden out in order to help meet my mandatory water savings. Combined with judicious watering of the permanent landscape plantings, I made my number. The trees are green as are the shrubs. The garden is fallowed.

I figured a farmer with soil moisture meters and subsurface drip irrigation could grow a tomato with far less water that I could.

In addition to the lost income from those acres, our Valley’s wildlife suffer due to reduced habitat provided by ricelands in production.

Biologists calculate that each acre of rice provides 700 pounds of food for ducks, geese and shorebirds, in the form of leftover grain and insects.

Less rice this year means not only less income in our farm communities but also less habitat. Soon the birds will begin arriving to find fewer places to rest and feed. Even the rice acres that were planted are unlikely to be able to be re–flooded to decompose the rice straw and provide the early habitat so vital to the Pacific Flyway.

So the reality is the drought down there is bad – really bad. Not only for farmers but also for the environment.