The rain year has been ideal, so far

Share on facebook
Share on twitter
Share on linkedin

By Vicky Boyd

This year’s winter precipitation and spring temperatures have turned out to be more of a Goldilocks tale than last year: not too much, not too little, but just right.

At least a few producers, especially those with non-irrigated fields, would like a few more showers to carry their crops to harvest.

Although early March storms delayed chores around Herman Doornenbal’s Escalon almond orchards, he wasn’t complaining much. This season’s rains, and more so, the late snowstorms, mean full deliveries for growers in the Oakdale Irrigation and South San Joaquin Irrigation districts.

The two districts share senior water rights to the first 600,000 acre-feet of inflow each year into New Melones Reservoir. As of March 21, New Melones held slightly more than 2 million acre-feet, about 136% of average for the date. That compares to about 1.3 million acre-feet on the same date in 2023.

This year’s snowpack also looked promising, with 48 monitoring stations in the central Sierra Nevada reporting a snow water content of 95% of normal for March 22.

“We had quite a bit of snow last week,” Doornenbal, who serves on the OID board, said in mid-March. “I think we would have had full allocations even before that last snowfall.”

In fact, New Melones had too much water in storage for mid-March. SSJID water resources coordinator Brandon Nakagawa said the Bureau of Reclamation, which operates the reservoir, had to make flood releases to bring down storage levels to about 1.97 million acre-feet.

Unfortunately, the releases came from a conservation account the two districts use to carry over a small amount of water from a previously wet year.

“When New Melones is making flood releases, it’s actually our water that’s going out,” Nakagawa said. But if reservoir levels are high enough at the end of this year, he said they should have water back in their conservation account for 2025.

Pastures green up

Early March rains followed by temperatures in the 70s helped promote grass growth on a Farmington-area cattle ranch run by SJFB First Vice President Les Strojan and his son. By mid-March, the grass was finally growing ahead of the cattle.

“Everything right now, of course, looks about as good as it can,” said Strojan, who with his son also grow forage crops. ”It’s a little too early to predict how good a spring we’ll have. Most of the growth is at the end of March into April, so that’s a critical time of year for water.”

To help maximize grass growth, he would like to see some more showers through early spring. Last year, the ranches actually received too much rain in a short period of time. In addition to the prolonged cold winter, the excessive rains delayed grass growth.

But this year, the rains came at more desirable intervals, followed by mild temperatures. “This year in general has been a better year,” Strojan said.

The wheat they planted for silage also has begun to grow and should come off in May or early June. He said they plan to double crop it with corn.

Cherry blossom time

With many cherry varieties hitting peak bloom in the Lodi and Stockton areas the week of March 18, SJFB Second Vice President James Chinchiolo said the crop was off to a promising start.

This year’s bloom looked good and the weather was nearly ideal for honey bee pollination activity. Compared to historic average, Chinchiolo, who grows cherries near Lodi, said this year’s bloom may be a few days behind but it’s not nearly as late as last year’s.

In anticipation of bloom, Chinchiolo had monitored the number of chill portions that accumulated over the winter to determine when to apply materials that wake up the trees a bit early. The theory is if they bloom earlier, then they’ll have mature fruit a bit sooner than untreated trees.

Although this winter’s weather was cold enough to put the trees into a deep sleep, he said it wasn’t as chilly as last winter. Much of the chilling this year also occurred later in the winter.

“There’s a theory I’ve heard that it’s better for chill to take place in November and December,” Chinchiolo said. “We had about 30% less than last year. We had a fairly cold January, but we didn’t necessarily catch up. But we got what we needed.”

Higher chill portions put the trees into a deeper winter slumber, and they tend to come out of it with a stronger bloom the following spring.

Although a lot can happen between now and harvest, Chinchiolo said he expected slightly less volume than in 2023. But the fruit quality should be good.

“Maybe with the chill portions there aren’t as many viable buds,” he said. “Sometimes the rain can knock off some of the viable buds, too. There may be less volume but higher quality.”

Cherry harvest in the Lodi and Stockton areas should start about mid-May, depending on variety.

Catching up on chores

With the break in the storms in mid-March, almond grower Doornenbal was making up time mowing orchard middles, sweeping mummies and fertilizing trees – chores he had had to put off because of wet conditions.

“(The sunny weather) is giving us a chance to catch up on everything we weren’t able to do because of all of the goofy weather, but it’s a good thing,” said Doornenbal, who chairs the SJFB Water Committee.

The ground was too wet to apply granular fertilizer as the trees leafed out in early March. If he were to have spread it later in the month, he didn’t foresee enough rain falling to help water it in.

“If we spread something now and it doesn’t rain for a while, most of that stuff will just gas off,” Doornenbal said about nitrogen volatilization.

His only option was to fertigate or run liquid fertilizer through his irrigation system. Looking at his crop set as he talked, Doornenbal said, “Our trees look pretty good. We can’t complain about what’s on them – but we don’t know what’s going to hold. But we did have a very nice bloom.”

He credited his beekeeper for providing strong hives and for mild weather that provided ample bee flight hours. “When I went into the orchard this year, there was just this hum,” Doornenbal said. “Last year, those poor things just didn’t come out of their hives.”

That’s because the warm spells between rains in February this year allowed bees to work the orchards. Honeybees typically don’t become active until temperatures are at least 55 degrees, and they also will remain in the hive if it’s raining or winds are over 15 mph.

Rains enhance soil moisture

The early March rains also enhanced soil moisture levels for Dave Simpson, who grows winegrapes near Lodi. Although warm spring temperatures may have dried out the top 2 to 3 inches of the soil, he said deeper moisture was still available.

“There’s plenty of moisture out there,” he said. “The vines are right now coming out of dormancy. Chardonnay is barely out there and cabernet is thinking about it, so there are no green leaves out there.”

Compared to 2023, when cold weather and rains delayed most crops, Simpson said he believed bud break in his grapes was closer to normal. With little to no green tissue exposed, he wasn’t considering a powdery mildew spray for the more susceptible chardonnay variety until possibly after rains forecast for late March.

“It’s like you do every year,” Simpson said. “You watch the weather, watch what’s going on, look at the forecast and then make some decisions.”