On a drive up the Silverado Trail the other day, the outdoor temperature gauge in the car ticked up from 78 degrees to 80 to 82 before settling on 84 degrees. Mid-January, the temperature in Napa Valley was in the mid-80s. This must be heaven to the tourists escaping from the snowy winter in the Eastern part of the country. For vineyard farmers this is bad. This is really, really bad.
There have been numerous reports during the last couple months about the draught in California. It is not news that we have had virtually no rain since July. There seems to be an article every day about another city or county considering plans to ration water. But other than Paso Robles, most public policy on water is still under consideration and rationing is still voluntary. Reports in the wine press are cautiously optimistic; the people interviewed are worried, but hopeful that late rains will bring relief. Perhaps those interviewed are trying to portray a happy face to the public. Evidence on the ground is that farmers are panicked and not waiting around for a miracle.
Here at Matchbook we get our irrigation water two ways: well water and district water. All three of the properties we farm have wells. Two of them, Matchbook included, are irrigated primarily from wells. One vineyard, JK, depends 90% on water purchased from the district water company and delivered via canal from Clear Lake and the Indian Valley reservoir in Lake County. We were told at the end of last year that our allotment of district water for 2014 was zero. We already had one well started and immediately placed our order for another well. And here we are in the middle of a queue of 80 requests for new wells with the driller. Eighty. This is the docket for just one drilling company. And at $200K a pop, everyone in line is seriously in need of water.
One unknown is how long the ground water will last without the replenishing rains with so many people pulling off the same aquifer. The five wells we have in place are all 600 feet deep. The two new wells will be 920 feet deep and pull from a different source. Fortunately, grapes use very little water compared to other crops. We will continue to deficit irrigate, putting back less water than the plant has used to keep the vine in stress. While we may all hope that a little stress will make for a vintage year, we are actually moving beyond just a little stress. This is not one dry year; this is the second dry year in a row. No one really wants to think about what will happen to California agriculture if this continues into a third year.
Who knows, maybe a Miracle March will bring torrential rains and make this issue moot. In the meantime, we are busy preparing in case this is the new normal.