Rice likes water - right? Just not this much!
By Tim Johnson
I’ve been asked this question a lot lately, especially, as people drive over the Yolo Bypass and stare again at the amazing flood control system that shunts water around Sacramento. One does not have to look very far back into Sacramento’s history to see that flooding and the city have an intimate and uneasy relationship.
The bypass system is truly amazing. Many times during this winter it held more water than was in the river! When you read stories of Sutter’s Fort loading river boats right out of the front gates, it’s easy to see that all of this water would not have stayed within its banks even with levees.
Even better, the land under the flood waters in the bypass are farmed in summer. Crops like rice, tomatoes and wild rice are actually more common than flood water. Stretching from Colusa past Sacramento, the bypass serves a dual role – flood protection in the winter and farming in the summer. All told, there are some 75,000 acres of farmland under those waters.
Most of the time this arrangement works well for all. Some years however, its use as flood control takes precedent. This year is likely one of them.
To farm rice, you first have to get the ground dry so you can prepare the seed bed. Tractors till the soil to allow oxygen in and then apply fertilizer and re-flood the fields. Only then do we fly on germinated rice seed.
This year, with the flood control demands of cities, high flows from the rivers and enormous snow pack it is likely that the bypass will be dry enough to till the land. The result could be a reduction in rice planting of some 30,000 – 50,000 acres.
It is ironic that three years of drought reduced the rice crop by up to 25 percent and we may now see reductions because of flooding. Farmers will take it in stride relying on crop insurance for rare disasters like this. At least we won’t be loading out rice on the steps of the State Capitol!