Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Ominous Signs

Moving one of our breeding groups onto "fresh" dry forage at sunrise this morning.
As I read today's weather forecast in the Sacramento Bee over my second cup of coffee, I was disheartened by this statement: "Sadly, no rain in the extended forecast." Despite the promising rain that broke our long summer dry spell last week, I can't help but worry about the prospect for moisture this fall.  Looking back on my weather journal from last autumn, I'm starting to think that this year is shaping up much like last year.  I'm worried about a fourth year of drought.

I spoke at a drought workshop last week at the UC Hopland Research and Extension Center.  One of the morning speakers, Sam Sandoval Solis, an assistant professor and cooperative extension specialist in water management, reported that the most recent long range forecast for California indicates that we have about a 67 percent probability that we will be drier than normal from October through December.  Things may improve a bit for the first three months of 2015 - he said the forecast indicates we have a 50-50 chance of normal precipitation.  While I don't give much weight to long-range weather forecasts, I certainly hope that these predictions turn out to be overly pessimistic.  The most recent drought outlook map released by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration looks ominous indeed.
The outlook for breaking this drought doesn't look good - at least through December.

We have been fortunate this summer that the Nevada Irrigation District (NID), which supplies our irrigation water, has been able to meet its conservation goals through voluntary actions.  Our irrigation season ends on October 15, and NID predicts that it will end the season with more water remaining in its reservoirs than it projected at the beginning of the season in mid-April.  Despite this good news, NID has announced that it will not be supplying winter water to customers (some farms, especially orchards, need winter water during dry winters).  Without water flowing through NID's extensive canal system, many ranchers won't have stockwater for their cows and sheep until the winter rains begin to refill stockponds and creeks.  NID is concerned that a state-mandated curtailment of some water rights may keep the district from storing water in reservoirs this winter, so these cutbacks are probably prudent.  I'm thankful we have the ability to haul water to our sheep - but we'll need to use more expensive treated water this fall.
Thanks to prudent management - and conservation
by farmers and residents alike - NID will end the
year with more water in storage than originally predicted.

Over the last three weeks, I've traveled to Los Banos (for a California Wool Growers executive committee meeting - I'm the newly elected treasurer), to Hopland (for the aforementioned drought workshop) and to High Sierra (to the Magonigal Pass area for an afternoon deer hunting trip).  I saw impacts of the drought everywhere I looked - slicked-off rangeland with very little residual grass, fallowed fields and dying fruit trees, dry creekbeds and bathtub ringed reservoirs, and bone-dry brush and dusty mountain trails.  Even with the glorious rain we had several weeks ago, we're still in the grip of the most intense drought in a generation.  At some point during my recent travels, I heard someone say on the radio that we'd need 150 percent of normal precipitation to make an impact on the drought conditions.

Closer to home, this autumn is looking ominously like last autumn.  Thanks to the rain we had in late September, grass seeds started to germinate on our rangelands.  I'm always amazed by how quickly the tiny shoots of green emerge through last year's dead grass, especially when rain is followed by warm temperatures.  Within 4-5 days of the rain, I saw new growth.  As I moved sheep this morning, however, I noticed that much of this new growth was beginning to wither and die.  Even the scattered native perennial grasses in our pastures, which were refreshed by the rain, look dry and brown again.  With no rain in the forecast, the seeds that germinated in late September won't produce grass for the coming year - we'll need another germinating rain.  Last year, we had three separate germinating rains - and no new grass to speak of until March.  I'm worried that we're in for more of the same this fall.
The last of the grass that germinated in our late
September rain - without more rain soon, these
green shoots will wither and die.

A native purple needlegrass plant (a perennial grass)
in front of a patch of invasive medusahead.  I'm hoping our
grazing management will encourage more of these natives!

Despite these ominous signs, I feel like our sheep operation is as prepared as we can be for a fourth dry year.  We've inventoried the dry grass available to us - we've got enough standing dry forage to get us through till next summer, even if it doesn't rain at all!  As long as we can provide supplemental protein to feed the mircro-organisms in rumens of our sheep, the sheep will be fine.  We'll keep hauling water, and we'll keep working on upgrading our summer irrigation system (which will allow us to stretch our summer water further). We continue to fine-tune our grazing management - with the hope that we can encourage the re-establishment of more resilient native grasses.  And we'll certainly keep praying for rain.


  1. Bleak indeed Dan, great post and reporting. Thanks….if I can thank you for bad news….sigh…..

  2. And now we're coping with another local wildfire. Hope another storm comes in soon!