Marin County farmers rush to save water as drought predicted to stretch into 2023
With California and the U.S. West squared firmly in drought into November per federal authorities, one Marin County agricultural program is taking shape to help farmers deal with the consequences.
On July 1, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration released a report in which climate and fire weather experts said a persistent ocean current temperature pattern called La Niña lasting through the year will keep Western states, in particular the coastal region, in drought conditions.
“Dangerous” heat will engulf the Pacific Northwest, and the West overall will face a 50-50 chance of above-normal temperatures through August.
More importantly, the seasonal outlook calls for drought through October, Jon Gottschalck, NOAA’s Climate Prediction Center chief predicted based on weather models.
Currently, almost three quarters of the American West lies in drought conditions, with nearly a third of that classified as “extreme” or “exceptional” by U.S. Drought Monitor standards. The inland part, or spine, of California from north to south, lies in the extreme category. The North Bay is situated in the severe drought zone.
“It’s the most severe in California and Nevada,” said Dave Simeral, an associate research climatologist with the Western Regional Climate Center, operated by the Desert Research Institute in Reno.
After eight atmospheric rivers drenching the West Coast in October, Simeral said forecasters were optimistic about the water year. Then, winter became disappointing.
“The faucet was turned off,” he said.
Marin County springs into action
The Marin Agricultural Land Trust (MALT), a nonprofit organization created in 1980 to preserve Marin County farmland, launched an initiative in April 2021. Since then, it has funded 36 projects to improve water storage on agricultural properties.
“This is something we talk about a lot on our site visits. We need to prepare for weird weather,” MALT Associate Director of Stewardship Eric Rubenstahl said, referring to the counsel the environmental stewardship agency provides.
The group announced right before Earth Day that it received $250,000 in funding for upcoming 2022 projects under the Drought Resilience and Water Security (DRAWS) program.
About double that was already allocated for emergency drought measures through the Point Reyes Station nonprofit organization.
Rubenstahl acknowledged that many Marin farmers have been forced to truck water in, an expensive endeavor — especially now with the high price of fuel. Ample water sources have been in short supply.
“What we noticed last year is the farmers needed to increase the capacity of their storage tank called ‘tank banks,’” he said. “If their ponds dry up, it’s hard to get (water).”
Such is the case for Linda Righetti Judah and her father David on their century-old, fifth-generation, Tomales farm on the west Marin County coastline where they lease the land to a cattle rancher. If the two-dozen head of cattle don’t get enough water to drink, there goes the Righetti income. Coming off a bone dry 2021, the two Lazy R wells were drying up.
That’s why the Righetti family enlisted the help of MALT, which supplied a $15,000 grant for a three-pronged project that eventually cost a total of about $25,000.
The main part of the project was completed in 2021. Gutters went up on the roofs of two 2,000-square-foot buildings on the 220-acre ranch to capture stormwater. Rainwater funnels through 200 pieces of 30-foot PVC pipes into a 5,000-gallon storage tank. The overflow is channeled into a pond on the property.
“It definitely has given us more flexibility that we have this extra water coming off the roof. It extends the period of time we have water (in the season), so we’re not having to have water shipped in,” she said.
Last year, the ranch hauled in at least two truckloads of water each week at about $200 a pop. Now, it may use a few truckloads occasionally.
“It’s exciting,” she said.
Susan Wood covers law, cannabis, production, tech, energy, transportation, agriculture as well as banking and finance. For 27 years, Susan has worked for a variety of publications including the North County Times, Tahoe Daily Tribune and Lake Tahoe News. Reach her at 530-545-8662 or firstname.lastname@example.org.