In the News

California drought deepens as another year's rains stay away

By Lisa M. Krieger, San Jose Mercury News 12/30/13

The driest year on record is turning the golden hills of California to dust, drying up wells, pastures and cash reserves in a season that is traditionally lush and generous.

"It's about the worst I've ever seen," said Gilroy's Jim Warren, 72, as a hungry herd of Angus cattle jostled toward his truck, piled high with $6,000 worth of imported alfalfa hay. "But you can't starve a cow into profit."

In Clayton, Jerry Richeson's well went dry, so he buys water by the gallon for his home and horses. Sebastopol sheep rancher Rex Williams has sold off one-third of his flock rather than borrow money to support them. In the vast artichoke fields of Castroville's SeaMist Farms, irrigation has started even before planting, so tiny seedlings won't perish.

The official drought map of California looks as if it has been set on fire and scorched in the center. The Bay Area has pulled out its umbrellas only few times this year. Normally, December offers a reprieve, delivering at least a storm or two. But the jet stream that usually pushes rains across our landscape remains up in the Pacific Northwest, allowing a warm and dry high pressure system to linger overhead.

Records are being broken all over the state, according to the National Weather Service. San Jose has only received 3.8 inches since January, well short of its 14-inch average. Oakland is even drier -- 3.39 inches this year, compared with its 22.8-inch average. The last time it was this dry in San Francisco was in 1917, with 9 inches. This year, the city has had less than 6 inches.

The state's official rain year will end on June 30 and a good storm or two in January or February could bring back a touch of winter green.

But while water managers and urban gardeners are nervously watching the sky, the impact of the growing drought is especially troubling for farmers. A parched landscape, unlike a hurricane or tornado, is a slow-moving disaster with indirect effects.

Droughts are measured in dollars, not just inches. Small water systems and private well owners lose precious drinking water supplies stored in unreliable fractured rock, said Jeanine Jones of the California Department of Water Resources. Rangelands are shrinking and the San Joaquin Valley is continuing to subside as its groundwater levels fall. And drought can contribute to catastrophic wildfires.

On Dec. 17, the governor set up a Drought Task Force to review expected water allocations and the state's level of preparedness. The first snow survey of the winter season will take place near the first of the year, with the Sierra snowmelt runoff forecasts following about a week later.

This is the third dry year in a row, accelerating the fall of water tables, cracking of fields and shrinking of water holes.

"We have five different ponds, and four are completely dry," said rancher Dave Duarte of the Santa Clara County Cattleman's Association and who runs 300 cows and calves in San Jose's eastern foothills. "One water tank, which is fed by a natural spring, is only half full."

Gary Mason's family has lived in the Santa Cruz Mountains since the 1800s, and for 40 years the Soquel resident has hauled water to local residents, delivering two loads a day -- 4,000 gallons each, at a cost of 6 to 10 cents a gallon -- up steep and narrow roads to the Mormon church, Summit Store and others.

"Back in the '60s, it gushed out of every gopher hole. At 100 feet, you'd hit ample water for a household," he said. "Now, some wells aren't hit until 350 or 400 feet."

To stay in business, he had to drill his own deep well, because cities such as Santa Cruz have grown possessive of every drop and don't sell to haulers any more, Mason said.

Santa Cruz made the state's list of record-low precipitation stations with 4.78 inches of rain so far this year, crushing the 1929 record of just less than 12 inches.

Ranchers are spending heavily on hay and molasses to get their cattle through the winter, when their herds usually would be contentedly grazing in bright green pastures. Some are planning to sell or slaughter their herds to reduce inventory.

In the Altamont hills east of Livermore, Darrel Sweet feeds each cow about 20 pounds of hay every day, at a cost of $2 to $3 a head. "If you have 100 cows," that's a couple hundred a day, he said. He is also buying supplements with extra nutrients.

"It's just a temporary solution. You can buy feed for only so long," he said.

Demand is helping push up hay prices beyond the reach of many ranchers. With good alfalfa costing about $260 a ton, more than double the usual $120 a ton, some ranchers are deciding to sell their herds -- a trend that will accelerate after Jan. 1, predicts Jim Warren, who owns 101 Livestock auction house in Aromas. In an ordinary January, only 100 or so animals are sold; next month, he predicts selling 500 to 700, from Eureka to Ventura.

"We're culling," said sheep rancher Williams, whose Sebastopol farm sells grass-fed lamb. About 100 of his 400 animals are already gone. "If you are a problem child -- always facing the wrong way, or fighting the dog -- you are in the trailer and out of here, sweetheart. Every time that hay truck rolls out the driveway, it costs me $7,000 or $8,000."

"I'm doing the happy rain dance," he said. "But so far, it isn't working."

Contact Lisa M. Krieger at 650-492-4098.

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