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From Anxiety to Resignation

Last night, we measured 1.15 inches of rain in Auburn.  The Sierra Foothill Research and Extension Center (where I take care of cattle and pastures) picked up 0.71" of rain.  While the precipitation is a welcome break in our warmer-than-normal springtime weather, it doesn't have much more significance than that.  Our annual grasses, for the most part, have already matured and won't grow any more even with this rain.  In our irrigated pastures, this weather will slow evapotranspiration (the demand for water from plants and evaporation) temporarily, but we still need to irrigate.  And so the year marches on - we're quickly approaching our "normal" summer dry period.  My winter-time anxiety about drought has turned into resignation that we are coping with a fourth dry year.

Despite the above-average rainfall we received last December, I remained worried about drought.  In some respects, I felt like the boy who cried wolf - I kept thinking (and saying), "This drought's not over."  In early January, our local water agencies told us that their private weather forecasts were indicating above average precipitation through the end of March.  But forecasting the weather is a chancy business - even for paid professionals!  January turned out to be the driest on record (we measured a whopping 0.01" of rain for the month).  By the end of March, our total rainfall was similar to last year's disappointing total - and the snowpack was the worst on record.  The April 1 snow survey for our watershed indicated that we had just 4 percent of normal for that date.  The Nevada Irrigation District reported that it's snowpack was the smallest - by far - in its 94-year history.  The boy who cried wolf turned out to have seen a whole pack of them!

For farmers and ranchers, drought induces constant worry.  I think about the drought's consequences every day.  Will we have enough grass for the sheep and cows this spring?  (We did, but barely). Will our summer irrigation water be cut? (Probably not). Will it be more expensive?  (Yes). Will we have enough dry grass to graze next fall before the rains come again?  (I'm not sure). Will our native oak trees survive a fourth year of drought?  (We're seeing drought stress in some blue oaks at SFREC). Will we have pest problems because of the warm winter?  (We did last year). Will the continued dry weather result in infestations of weeds like yellow starthistle and medusahead barley?  (Again, I'm not sure). Intellectually, I realize that worrying won't make it rain, but emotionally I find that I can't help but worry.

But as we head into our normal dry season, I find that my anxiety is turning into resignation.  We're not likely to get much more rain until next autumn (and even if we do, it won't help much).  My worry about the dry winter has transitioned to worry about hot weather and fire danger, but hot weather and wildfire are part of every summer in Northern California.  While my sharp daily anxiety about the immediate consequences of the drought is giving way to a dull worry in the back of my mind that we're at the front end of a long-term dry period, at least I know what I have to work with this summer.  We'll try to manage our sheep and cattle grazing to make it through until next fall's rain.      We'll stretch this summer's irrigation water as far as it will go by installing new, more efficient equipment.  In other words, we'll try to live with what we have - and I'll take a break from worrying about rain until next October!

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