And, right on schedule ...

Submitted: Jul 27, 2015
Badlands Journal editorial board

here comes the salt.


Stockton Record   

Salt worries building in Delta waters

By Alex Breitler
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State officials acknowledged this week that they are “struggling” to keep portions of the Delta fresh, as saltier water from San Francisco Bay pushes inland during yet another summer of drought.

Normally, rivers from interior California help push back that saltier water and keep the Delta fresh, which is important for people and fish alike. But this year the rivers are low, which allows the Bay water to move toward the east and invade portions of the tidally influenced estuary.

In order to hold back more water in depleted reservoirs, the state Department of Water Resources and U.S. Bureau of Reclamation earlier this year asked regulators to temporarily weaken certain salinity standards in the west Delta, rules that are supposed to protect agriculture. The request was granted.

Now, in two locations, even those weakened standards have been exceeded — one on the Sacramento River at Threemile Slough, and another on the San Joaquin River at Jersey Point.

“I think in some ways it’s not too surprising,” John Lehigh, who oversees operations of California’s water delivery system, told the State Water Resources Control Board this week. “We knew things were going to be tight.”

Little water can be released from reservoirs to push back the saltier water, he said. A “very unfavorable” tide also contributed to the recent salinity problem. By Tuesday the Jersey Point location was back in compliance with the standard.

The good news, Lehigh said, is that a rock barrier installed by the state earlier this spring appears to be preventing saltwater from pushing into the heart of the Delta, where it could cause problems for even more farmers and foul up drinking-water supplies.

Some environmentalists have challenged the water board’s decision to allow those scientifically determined water-quality standards to be weakened. In a complaint filed Wednesday, the Stockton-based California Sportfishing Protection Alliance warned that the looser standards also imperil fish that already are on the verge of extinction, such as the tiny Delta smelt.

Stockton’s Restore the Delta filed its own protest on Thursday. Tim Stroshane, the group’s policy advisor, said the state’s water system still is being operated as it was four decades ago, with reservoirs drawn down in the early years of the drought under the assumption that a healthy snowpack would follow.

So far, it hasn’t. Now, Stroshane said, “The system is really in quite a crisis.”




Salt Is Slowly Crippling California's Almond Industry

Ezra David Romero


As California's drought drags on, its almond industry has come under scrutiny. As you've probably heard by now, almonds use a lot of water — about one gallon per nut. Most growers are relying on groundwater even more this year, because their surface water has been cut off. But that brings a different problem all together: too much salt.

Not the salt added to make roasted almonds savory, but salt in groundwater – which is killing trees.

"The trees just don't look healthy," says Paul Parreira. He and his brother David ship over 30 million pounds of almonds around the globe each year from Rpac Almonds, in California's Central Valley.

"Everybody is watering at the minimum levels with high-salinity water," he says. "It's a double-edged sword."

High salinity levels in groundwater used for agriculture has long been a problem in the west side of the Central Valley, but this year, it's also an issue on the east side, a growing region at the base of the Sierra Nevada that's usually wet. Many farmers have zero allocation of surface water from the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, so they're forced to irrigate with salty groundwater. And the few farmers who do get delta water say it's also saltier than normal these days.

Salinity is a problem for almond growers throughout the Central Valley, where around 800,000 acres of the nut are harvested. The region is the center of the global almond industry. That's why the Almond Board of California has a focused effort on salinity.

"Water quality and quantity are very big issues for us," says Bob Curtis, the board's director of agricultural affairs. "To that end, we are funding research on updating the impacts of salinity on almond tree growth and productivity."

That research will help farm advisers across the region educate growers on the issue. One of those farm advisers is David Doll with the University of California Cooperative Extension based in Merced. He's better known as the "almond doctor."

"We've been seeing this increasing problem over the past couple years — due to the lack of winter rain — of sodium burn, or salt burn on leaves," says Doll.

Seven years ago, Doll realized there were very few resources for almond farmers on how to grow their crop safely and efficiently. So he started a blog called The Almond Doctor. Today there are nine "almond doctors" across the state, and his blog is considered a hidden gem by the industry.

Doll is diagnosing an orchard in Merced County, where the effects of salty groundwater are evident.

"From a distance, you can see that these trees are just lacking the color that we would normally expect," Doll says. "It's a little bit of a lime greenish. It's not that dark green. As we look down the row, we can even see a little bit of a bronze tinge, kind of, on the outside canopy of the trees."

In Merced, the issue isn't just salty groundwater. The kicker is preexisting salt-laden soil. Almond trees have a threshold for how much salt they can take in. The trees fight toxicity as long as they can, but at some point, they give up — and salt wins. Doll says the answer to save the trees is to dilute the potency of salt in groundwater.

"Rain will do it naturally for us," Doll says. But when there's no rain, he encourages farmers to dilute the salt in the ground by using irrigation water, if they have extra, to flood the fields.

But if rain doesn't come, Doll says to expect a shrinking California almond crop in the years to come. According to the Almond Board, that's already happening: Crop yields for almonds statewide are projected to go down by 4 percent this year.



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