North Bay farmers hang tight as threat of 3rd drought year looms

With prolonged drought on the horizon, Santa Rosa dairy farmer Doug Beretta is expecting expenses to rise as water supplies deplete.

As the pastures dry up sooner at Beretta Dairy, he estimates spending at least $2,500 more per load of hay to feed his cows. And the price of fuel might make that hay buying endeavor cost prohibitive as truckers are forced to drive farther away to get an ample supply of hay.

“It may not even be feasible to go farther,” Beretta said.

At least his allocation from the Santa Rosa reclaimed water program was increased slightly in this water year. But who knows what the future brings.

Farther east, Solano County Farm Bureau Manager Lisa Shipley said some of her growers are replacing almond trees with the olive variety in efforts to reduce water use.

“It’s really tough, but they’re hanging in there,” Shipley said.

All this comes in light from the spring outlook released March 17 by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration declaring that California faces a “prolonged, persistent drought” that will “elevate the risk of wildfire across the West.” The outlook runs through June.

Following three-year precipitation levels that were the “driest on record” for Central California since measurements started in 1922, the “low snowpack going into the dry time of year in May and June” isn’t helping, as NOAA’s meteorologist Brad Pugh pointed out on a virtual press conference call. “This sets the stage for wildfire activity.”

Pugh singled out the Bay Area as an area where “the concern is quite high as we go into spring and early summer” in respect to wildfire danger and water resources drying up.

“We’re running out of time to make up for any precipitation deficit,” he said.

Despite atmospheric river downpours in October and December, January and February were well below normal in producing any type of ground drenching.

Rainfall totals in Santa Rosa taken at the Charles M. Schulz Sonoma County Airport are down a staggering 7% of normal since the start of the year to now at 1.09 inches of precipitation, the National Weather Service reported. Normal is 16.01 inches.

“The North Bay on average is 10% less than normal. It’s not good. Had it not been for those storms in October and December, we’d really be in bad shape,” Weather Service meteorologist Roger Gass said from the Monterey station.

NOAA declared the multi-year drought is expected to continue or even worsen in the next few months to below normal precipitation levels leading into the dangerous summer and fall seasons in the West.

And according to the U.S. Drought Monitor, 60% of the nation this week is “experiencing minor to exceptional drought — the largest (region coverage) since 2013,” NOAA’s Climate Prediction Center Chief Jon Gottschalck told conference attendees.

In California, the U.S. Drought Monitor showed extreme drought conditions more than doubled within a week’s time to 35% of the state.

For the agriculture-rich state, alarm bells are going off — with no relief on the horizon. Farmers and ranchers, who ag commissioners across the North Bay from Solano to Marin counties fear may not survive, may have to get along with less water for crops and livestock, a U.S. Department of Agriculture official on the call indicated.

USDA meteorologist Brad Rippey implied this recent pattern of more recent drought periods prompt heavy decisions by water purveyors and consequently farmers.

“In eight out of the last 11 years, they’ve had to make difficult choices on how to allocate water resources,” Rippey told the Business Journal.

The periods of shortages described as “uncharted territory” have resulted in much land fallowed.

“Since the beginning of the century, three out of four years have been drought years,” Rippey added.

The magnitude of the drought has lowered reservoirs to extremely low water depths in the West. California alone saw its state storage drop by 1.5 million acre feet since October, reported Brett Whitin, a NOAA hydrologist with the California Nevada River Forecast Center and panelist on the call.

What’s unknown is how much water will come off the melting snowpack, he added.

Still, water levels plunging at major reservoirs in the state also raises concern about being able to generate hydropower that keeps the lights on for millions of people in the West.

News of the upcoming wildfire season as bad would come after several seasons in which the fires took a great toll. For the North Bay, those include the Tubbs and Nuns fires in Sonoma County in 2017, and after a handful of lightning complexes across Northern California, ended with the Glass Fire in Napa County in 2020.

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