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This Drought's Over - Right?!

As I write this post on November 30, 2014, I'm looking out the window at cloudy skies and wet ground.  Since Thanksgiving (three days ago), we've measured more than an inch of rain.  For the month of November, we've received just over 4.4 inches - compared to 3.43 inches in September-November 2013.  Thanks to well-spaced rain and continued warm temperatures, our grass has started to grow - also a departure from last year.  So the drought's over, right?!  Based on some of the posts I've seen on Facebook in the last 24 hours, you'd think a month of average precipitation had solved all of our problems.  Unfortunately, we're not out of the woods yet - not even close!

On the day after Thanksgiving, the girls and I drove to Tuolumne County from our home near Auburn.  Our route took us over the Parrots Ferry Bridge over New Melones Reservoir on the Stanislaus River.  New Melones is part of the the federal Central Valley Project - it stores irrigation and drinking water for customers in the San Joaquin Valley and beyond.  And it's incredibly low.  Parrots Ferry is the easternmost crossing over the lake, and we were startled to see the tops of dead trees in the middle of the channel - in other words, this stretch of the lake seems to be less than 100 feet above the elevation of the former river channel.  And just as discouraging - there seemed to be new vegetation growing on the shoreline (indicating multiple years of low levels).

This afternoon, I went to the the California Department of Water Resources website ( to look at current reservoir levels - which confirmed my feeling that we still had a long way to go to get back to normal moisture.  According to DWR, Lake Shasta is currently at 23% of capacity and 39% of it's historic level for this time of year.  Lake Orovile is at 26% and 42%, respectively.  Folsom is sitting at 28% and 59%, while New Melones is at 21% and 38%.  In other words, without significantly above average rainfall (and more importantly, snowfall) in our Sierra Nevada and Northern California watersheds, we're facing the prospect of another summer without enough irrigation water for farmers and ranchers.  My friend Tom Orvis, who works for the Stanislaus County Farm Bureau and who comes from an Oakdale ranching family, says this: "The Oakdale Irrigation District says the Stanislaus River watershed (New Melones) needs 125%-135% of "normal" to saturate the watershed enough to actually yield an "average year."  In other words, the soil was so dry coming into this winter that we'll need above average rainfall just to achieve normal runoff - scary!

We saw other signs of continued drought on our trip.  As my brother-in-law and I drove from his house in Columbia to my parents' place east of Sonora, I remarked about a large patch of dead live oaks on the hillside.  "Was there a fire up there?" I asked.  He told me that there hadn't been a fire, but that there were patches of dead and dying trees in various parts of the county.  While I can't be certain, dead trees sure seem to be drought-related in my mind.  On the rangelands where we graze our sheep, we've yet to see the creeks start running or the stockponds filling - a sure sign that the soil is not yet saturated enough to produce run-off.  This afternoon, I met with a friend who has a ranch in Orland (north of Sacramento).  Most of these recent storms have missed them entirely, he said - the creek that runs through their place is still dry.  All of these signs indicate, at least to my untrained eye, that we haven't started refilling the over-taxed groundwater supplies that many folks relied on to keep crops alive last year.

Even in semi-rural communities like the one I live in, it seems that most people are disconnected from the natural resources that sustain us.  Rain is an inconvenience - it ruins our leisure time, impacts our morning commute, and makes our trip to the mall (or at least the walk from the parking lot to the store) unpleasant.  If we see puddles and green grass in November, everything must be fine. But everything is not fine - we're still in the midst of the most severe drought of our generation.  I hope the rains keep coming - and I hope the snow starts to fall in the high country.  Otherwise, 2015 will be even more challenging than the year that's coming to a close.


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