Thursday, February 20, 2014

Plan for the Worst - Hope for the Best

Spaulding Reservoir  (in the Yuba River Watershed) on January 30, 2014 (photo by the Sierra Nevada Conservancy)
These eight words sum up our drought plan.  We're hoping it rains, but we're assuming it won't.  We've had enough rain since the first of February to start grass growth - which is quite a relief in the short term.  Looking longer term, every day without rain means we're one day closer to the end of the rainy season (which usually occurs in late March or April) - one less day in which to make up our precipitation deficit.  And even with the rain we had several weeks ago, the water we have stored for summer irrigation (in the form of snow and reservoir storage) remains woefully inadequate.  The Nevada Irrigation District (NID), which supplies our summer irrigation water, reports on its website that the snow pack in its watersheds is just 7 percent of normal for this time of year.  While I assume the picture was improved with the early February storms, I'm still planning on dealing with a reduction (perhaps significant) in our summer water.  NID, it seems, along with the Placer County Water Agency, wants to delay the bad news as long as possible - they've recently announced that they won't make any decision regarding summer water allocations until at least March.  I find the delay troubling for a number of reasons.

While hoping for the best, we've assumed that this year will be much dryer than normal.  Consequently, we've selected ewes that we can sell if necessary.  I think we've now had enough moisture to allow us to keep these ewes until we wean their lambs; however, we probably can't justify keeping them through the summer without some assurance of access to irrigated pasture.  Furthermore, we're assuming we won't have enough high quality irrigated pasture to finish lambs this year - which means we'll market most (if not all) of our lambs at weaning (and we'll also wean about a month earlier than normal).  To implement these decisions effectively and profitably, I need to take steps now (like contacting potential buyers, reducing costs to match our expected revenue reductions, etc.) - even though NID is not willing to make a decision yet.  While we're in a solid position to implement our drought plan now, I've talked to other producers who are willing to gamble on NID's decision - they are waiting to take action until March at the earliest.  Waiting may have severe economic consequences - the market for ewes and lambs could drop, for example.

For farmers who raise vegetable crops, waiting is even less tenable.  Most small-scale vegetable growers have already ordered seeds - and many will start planting crops in March (and some are planting greenhouse starts as I write this).  What happens if they plant under the assumption that they'll get full a full water allocation, only to learn that the water districts are reducing their deliveries?

I would prefer that the water districts take the same approach I've taken - plan for the worst, but hope for the best.  I would prefer that they announce tentative cuts NOW - which would allow commercial growers to adjust their summer production plans.  If we get a "miracle March" - like the districts seem to be hoping - they could adjust the reductions and deliver more water.  Increasing planted acreage - or deciding to retain more sheep or cows - is easier than deciding which crops to let whither or selling lambs or calves without a solid market.  Planning for the worst allows us to take advantage of an improved situation.  Hoping for the best is not a sound basis for business planning.

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