Water watchers in Marin, Sonoma counties brace for more drought

With the North Bay placed squarely on a map of “severe drought” in February, water stakeholders are scoping out ways to navigate another nail-biting summer ahead for farms and other users.

While water agencies in Marin and Sonoma counties seek additional sources, even involving desalination, North Bay dairy farmers and ranchers consider trucking in hay to feed the livestock if the hillside grass dies in the coming month or two.

“I hate to say it, but it’s a perfect storm. But I wish we had a storm,” said Sonoma County Farm Bureau Executive Director Tawny Tesconi, who is hosting a water summit May 10 and 11 .

Coming off two “drought” years for the West, the U.S. Drought Monitor map unveiled Feb. 1 by the National Drought Mitigation Center out of the University of Nebraska shows about two-thirds of California, including all of the San Francisco Bay Area, is situated in “severe drought.”

“Do we even call it a drought any longer?” she asked, implying these extreme dry conditions seem to come regularly as a new normal every year now. “There’s just this Domino effect. At this rate, we’re going to lose some head (of cows) for sure.”

Cattle ranchers and dairy farmers send their livestock out to feed on the green hills for about four months. If the grass dries up prematurely, they’re forced to buy elsewhere. But western hay suppliers have also experienced drought conditions, forcing the farmers to drive farther distances to get the much-needed feed.

And such with supply and demand tendencies, those prices get jacked up as several farmers found out last year. Add in high fuel costs, and many are discovering huge dents in the business budgets.

Bodega dairy farmer Josh Perucchi was forced to buy alfalfa last year, paying “the highest (prices)” he’s ever seen. Perucchi Dairy paid about $400 per ton receiving “multiple” truckloads of 26 tons each.

Operating a third-generation family farm established by his grandparents in 1952, Perucchi is also concerned that there’s enough drinking water into fall.

“We’re hoping for a Miracle March,” he said, referring to a monumental precipitation month in 1991 in California.

Vegetable grower Bob Cannard of Green String Farm got creative last year because the primary water source on his Adobe Road farm in Sonoma County all but dried up, so he was forced to transport produce from other farms to his food stand.

“Last year, we would have closed without those other farms. We could grow very little here,” he said from his Petaluma location. “We had hardly any rainfall.”

The water-generous October and December months, but dry January and likely most of February, are placing a lot of eyes on the next few weeks.

“March is a critical month, with equal chances in April and May. And it’s likely to persist,” NOAA Climate Prediction Center meteorologist Brad Pugh told the Business Journal. Pugh said that assessment is based on the models and historical patterns. NOAA is due to formally release its spring outlook on Feb. 17.

And over the long haul, even if March delivers heavy rainstorms, “it’s unlikely we’d make up for the deficits,” he added. “We’re not going to completely eliminate the long-term deficits.”

Sonoma County Water Agency, with 600,000 customers in Marin and Sonoma counties, has asked Santa Rosa residents to reduce water use by 20%. To meet water demands, the agency relies on banking water in underground basins to tap later. One basin on Todd Road in Santa Rosa, was used last year.

Now, General Manager Grant Davis said the agency has received $7 million in funding to make necessary improvements at two on Sebastopol and Occidental roads. These storage banks may capture 1.8 million and 1.6 million gallons, respectively, and are expected to be used by this summer.

The water agency is also using data modeling of past years to gauge “how short” the water supply will be, Davis noted. The agency has also developed a model to better manage water releases at Lake Mendocino, saving 11,000-acre feet of water in the process.

Beyond that, the Sonoma County Water Agency is working with Marin County’s water district, which is developing a far-reaching, five-month assessment plan, identifying other sources of water. Even desalinizing Pacific Ocean water is a project option. Marin County has also explored building a water pipeline across the bay over the Richmond Bridge to the East, according to the Water Education Foundation, a Sacramento-based nonprofit organization that focuses on drought.

Despite seven reservoirs standing at 95% capacity, during the water agency’s board meeting on Feb. 1, the directors pointed to the dim weather forecast in the coming weeks to underscore the need for residents to conserve. In January, the agency board repealed water use limits and penalties.

“We’re moving toward long-term conservation as a way of life,” the water district’s Operations Director Paul Sellier told the Feb. 1 meeting attendees.

Agriculturally, Marin County is not out of the woods, despite the rainfall replenishing supplies.

“The big concern we have now is, if the grass stops growing and dies, our ranchers will be hurting,” said Marin County Agricultural Commissioner Stefan Parney.

Last year, Parnay had cited that area farmers and ranchers were dealt huge blows to their livelihoods, adding up to at least $1.5 million in crop losses this past year.

Farmers refrained from planting on about half their acreage, and ranchers scaled back on their livestock. Some hauled in water, while others paid a high price tag to buy feed from out of state, when hillside grasses became bone dry.

“Currently, the grass is green now, but we have to have rain for foraging,” he said.

To the east, Napa saw success in getting users to cut their use over last summer from an average 18 million gallons per day to 13 million by the end of summer, Napa Deputy Utilities Director Joy Eldredge indicated.

Solano County Agriculture Commissioner Ed King said he’s “very pleased” the earlier storms replenished Lake Berryessa, the region’s primary water source, and prompted the local water agency to provide regular deliveries to its ag customers. But he admits the previous storms are not enough to sustain the supply.

“It takes more than one average rainfall. It’s going to dry out in a hurry. Then, there are the fires, so we get the complete package,” he said. “In California, unfortunately, that’s where we’re at nowadays.”

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 susan.wood@busjrnl.com.

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