Rains bring relief to Sacramento Valley rice farmer, but will it be enough?

Water is the lifeblood of a rice farm, and Sacramento Valley’s recent rains have given grower Tom McClellan a bit of hope that 2014 will not be a wasted year.

“We’re seeing some regrowth of the grasses,” said McClellan, who farms 1,500 acres on land that stretches from Sacramento to Sutter counties. “The rains have been substantial, to a point of almost being normal.”

Evidence of the effect of recent rains is not hard to find on the rice farm, which sits within sight of planes that land and take off at Sacramento International Airport.

Bright yellow flowers top the giant mustard weed straddling the edges of the creeks and drains that surround McClellan’s farm, and the ground is muddy enough to coat the shoes of those who walk through.

On a normal year, though, the mud would be ankle-deep. “What we need would be a storm of almost biblical proportions to get caught up at this point,” McClellan said. “I don’t know if it’s possible to get caught up.”

Still, conditions are much better than they were in early January, when the soil was so dry it crumbled underfoot.

It’s not just local rain that’s important to McClellan. Faraway rains matter just as much. McClellan’s farm draws much of its water from Lake Oroville and Lake Shasta reservoirs.

The recent rains provided help to some reservoirs, said David Simeral, research meteorologist with NOAA’s Western Regional Climate Center. Both Shasta and Oroville are now at 50 percent of capacity.

The drought is expected to remain severe throughout the West, however. Simeral said the outlook for the region over the next six to 14 days – as well as the next three months – calls for above-average temperatures and below-normal precipitation for most of California.

“Overall, the forecasts don’t look favorable,” Simeral said.

McClellan nonetheless starts his day with a sense of excitement, checking on rainfall and reservoir levels.

“It was exciting to see that last night Lake Shasta and Lake Oroville got to 50 percent of storage,” said McClellan.“We farmers, we all get excited. But this is silly, because we’re still talking about just half as much water as normal.”

McClellan said he’s at least not facing the grim reality that was on his mind three months ago. In January, he expected that the state would not deliver any of his allotted water from its Lake Oroville Reservoir, and that the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, which is responsible for Lake Shasta dam, would likely cap McClellan at 40 percent of his normal allocation.

Now he’s waiting to hear his water allocation from Lake Oroville.

“We don’t know how big an economic hit we’re going to take this year,” McClellan said. “When you talk to people in the agricultural community – everyone, from the tractor driver to the chemical fertilizer – everyone says no one knows what the situation is going to be.”

He won’t know for sure how the drought has affected him until he plants his crop in June.

Until then, the eight tractor drivers who work for McClellan during planting and harvest season won’t know their prospects, either.

“Right now, I don’t know what to tell them,” he said.

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