California North Coast farmers fear dry winter amid dismal snow survey

The slow drip from Mother Nature’s faucet so far this winter has caused cautious concern from farmers and their bureaus reliant on adequate water supplies.

After surveying the Sierra Nevada snowpack on Dec. 30, the California Department of Water Resources reported 52% of the statewide average in comparison to this time last winter. The mountain range’s snowpack — referred to as the state’s “frozen reservoir” — supplies about 30% of California’s water needs.

The lack of water in this given winter is not good news for farmers.

“Right now, it’s not looking good,” said Loren Poncia, who runs Stemple Creek Ranch based in Tomales in Marin County. “We always want rain, but things are not (looking) OK for grass growth.”

Poncia fears his feed costs may go through the roof if his more than 200 head of cattle on 2,000-plus acres can’t find enough to grass to graze on. If the dry trend continues, he’ll be forced to sell animals. For now, Poncia is trying other tricks of the trade. He uses compost to accelerate the growth of grass in the pasture lands.

“We’ve had 3 inches of rain. We usually get 13 by now. And we’re coming off a dry year,” he said, adding the rate of precipitation was cut in half.

Santa Rosa dairy farmer Doug Beretta feels his Sonoma County counterpart’s pain.

Beretta needs just under 1 million gallons of water a day to irrigate his farm founded by his grandfather in 1948. The veteran farmer joins Poncia in the concern he may be forced to sell cows in his head of more than 500. He’s already spending over $25,000 a month on feed for his animals, and the situation could worsen with a continuing dry trend.

“We’ve already been cut back 30% from last year,” Beretta said of his supply provided by Santa Rosa’s reclaimed water program. “It could be 40% to 50% this year. We won’t know until March.”

“We’re really lucky we have (Lake) Berryessa, and at this moment, it’s still early,” Solano County Farm Bureau Director Lisa Shipley said of the Napa County reservoir. “Winters have been coming later.”

While the season may still seem early, farm bureau directors and their members worry because winter is predicted to be dry and warm by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. In mid-October, NOAA forecasted La Nina conditions, which is a tropical weather phenomenon that originates off the shores of South America. The phenomenon can mean less rain for areas like Northern California.

“I’m worried we’ll see that prediction for a dry winter (come into fruition),” Sonoma County Farm Bureau Executive Director Tawny Tesconi said.

Here’s what the water supply looks like for North Bay reservoirs:

Lake Berryessa water storage for the past year. (Solano County Water Agency)
Lake Berryessa water storage for the past year. (Solano County Water Agency)
Lake Hennessey water storage since September 2020. (County of Napa)
Lake Hennessey water storage since September 2020. (County of Napa)

Lake Shasta, the largest reservoir in the federal Central Valley Project, stood at 72% of average as of Monday, according to a California Farm Bureau report. Lake Oroville, the largest State Water Project reservoir, held 57% of its average storage and San Luis Reservoir, used jointly by the CVP and SWP, had 69% of average storage.

"We still have several months left to bring us up to average, but we should prepare now for extended dry conditions," DWR Director Karla Nemeth said in a statement

Susan Wood covers law, cannabis, production, agriculture and transportation as well as banking and finance. For 25 years, Susan has worked for a variety of publications including the North County Times in San Diego County, Tahoe Daily Tribune and Lake Tahoe News. She graduated from Fullerton College. Reach her at 530-545-8662 or

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to correct how much water per day Beretta Dairy Farm uses to irrigate, which is just under 1 million gallons. An earlier version indicated 14 million gallons. This figure refers to the amount of wastewater inflow from the city of Santa Rosa’s reclaimed water program, which Beretta uses.

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