With last year’s unusually dry weather continuing into 2014, water running through irrigation systems has been a common sight in the dormant almond orchards of Sutter and Yuba Counties as winter has progressed.

In at least one irrigation district, growers irrigated with surface water into November before water deliveries ended for the season. Elsewhere, others began turning on their well pumps.

By mid-January, forecasts offered little hope for any significant rainfall in the short term. Meanwhile, availability of surface water for the upcoming season is in serious doubt.

“Growers are very, very nervous that they may have little or no surface water this year,” says Franz Niederholzer, University of California Cooperative Extension farm advisor for Colusa, Sutter and Yuba Counties.


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On the plus side, temperatures, aided by the early December cold spell, have been cold enough to provide almond trees the number of chilling hours needed for normal development of flowers and leaf buds, he reports.

Typically, the early-pollinating varieties in this area start blooming in the first half of February. However, warmer temperatures, like those in the first part of January, could result in an earlier bloom, Niederholzer notes.

To prepare orchards for the start of this year’s bloom, he offers these tips.

Clean up the orchard floor

The taller the vegetation and the drier the grounds, the less frost protection for the tree wood and buds. That’s why he recommends mowing and irrigating the orchards prior to bloom, especially if there has been no rain to little rain and the soil is dry. “Moist, bare soils absorb heat from the sun during the day and radiate it back to the air at night,” he says. “University of California research shows these conditions can add a least one degree of warmth to the air temperature in an orchard compared to tall vegetation and dry ground.  If weather remains dry and warm days push earlier bloom, the lack of humidity may translate to low dew points at night or early morning that could mean colder mornings than average.”

Check out your irrigation system

If you haven’t already been irrigating this winter, now is the time to make sure there are no surprises when you turn on the water for the first time this season – assuming you have water to use. Check for worn nozzles or emitters, clogged filters and emitters, misadjusted pressure regulators and leaks, including damage from coyotes, ground squirrels, ATVs and the like.  For more information on maintaining a micro-irrigation system, see the UC publication Maintaining Microirrigation Systems.  It can be ordered online at: http://anrcatalog.ucdavis.edu/Irrigation/21637.aspx