Saturday, January 2, 2016

Drought Update: Still (Always) on my mind

Looking back at my writing over the last six months or so, I've found that I've written about our drought with much less frequency.  While I suppose this could be taken as a sign that I feel like the drought is over, in reality, I think drought has become the new normal for me.  And so as we enter a new year, I want to think about the ways in which drought continues to impact my day-to-day life.

First, a snapshot of current conditions in my part of the Sierra Nevada foothills.  With just over six inches of rainfall in December 2015, we are approaching "normal" precipitation for the current water year (which started on July 1).  More importantly, we are slightly above normal in terms of our mountain snowpack.  Since snow is our most important "reservoir" for summer water, this is great news.  Last year in early January, my family visited Yosemite Valley and found it barren and brown; yesterday, we snowshoed in Truckee and were heartened to see more than 3 feet of snow on Donner summit.  And we've had an extended stretch of cold weather (at least it's cold for our region) - the longest stretch of sub-freezing morning temperatures in several years.  Cold weather is critical for the winter dormancy of much of our vegetation - and for disrupting the life cycles of a number of agricultural pests.

Even with these positive signs, we are still seeing the impacts of drought every day.  After four years of drought, our rangeland soils are so dry that the ephemeral creeks where we graze our sheep are not flowing consistently.  Even though we received a germinating rain in October (which is reasonably normal here), our germination has been very spotty and uneven (probably due to the "false" germinations we've experienced for the past several autumns).  Many of the blue oaks on our rangelands still have their leaves - despite the recent cold weather, drought stress and our warmer-than-usual autumn seems to have disrupted their normal deciduous pattern.  During trips into the mountains this fall, we've been startled by the number of dead and dying Ponderosa pines (victims of drought stress and bark beetle attacks) - and we understand that tree mortality in the Sierra Nevada gets more severe as one travels south.

My work reflects the realities of living with drought, as well.  I've documented the reduction in our sheep flock - we bred about 75% fewer ewes this year compared with 2011.  Our de-stocking responded both to a lack of forage availability and to greater demands on my time - fewer sheep means lower income, which means I'm working full-time off the ranch.  During 2015, I managed the cattle and pastures at the Sierra Foothill Research and Extension Center - and drought was a constant companion.  Because of the drought, we weaned calves early, shipped yearlings early, and hauled stock water to some pastures.  And as the new year opens, my new job as assistant rangeland specialist in the UC Davis Plant Sciences Department is focused (in part) on drought and water-related issues.

I hesitate to compare this drought with the Dust Bowl years of the late 1920s and 1930s.  Unlike the Dust Bowl, this drought hasn't caused mass human migration in the United States.  The skies above the East Coast haven't been darkened by dust from the high plains and mountain West.  However, based on tree-rings and other paleotological records, the current drought is the worst experienced in California in 500 years.  On a more personal level, the significance of any event can be measured by comparing life before the event with life after.  From this stand point, this drought is undoubtedly one of the most significant events of my adult life.  My life and livelihood after the drought look very different than I thought they would before the drought started.

And so as we start a new year, I'm hopeful that predictions of a wet late winter and spring (products of one of the strongest El Niño events ever documented) come true.  Even so, memories of last year's historically wet December and equally historically dry January are fresh in my mind.  To borrow a sentiment from Yogi Berra, we won't know this drought is over until it's over.

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