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Requiem for the Drought?

Since we moved to Auburn in 2001, the average annual rainfall at our place has been a shade under 30 inches. In the 2011 “rain year” (which we measured from July 1, 2010, through June 30, 2011), we received just over 45 inches. In the subsequent 5 years (2012-2016), our average precipitation was 26.77” (which includes a slightly above average 2016 rain year). In addition to recording these rain year averages, we also track a rolling 12-month rainfall total – which helps us anticipate emerging drought conditions. Remarkably, from February 1, 2013, through January 31, 2014, our 12-month total was just 9.92 inches. As I recall, from early December 2013 through late January 2014, we went nearly 60 days without precipitation. While it did finally rain in 2014, January 2015 was the driest on record – just 0.01 inches of rain fell in Auburn. According to many accounts, this was the driest period in California in the last 500 years. And it was one of the most significant natural events in my lifetime.

This rainy season, we’ve received more than 35 inches of rain since October 1. We’ve measured more rainfall this January (14.53 inches so far) than we measured from February 1, 2013, through January 31, 2014 – indeed, more than we’ve ever measured in one month since we’ve lived in Auburn. From a forage perspective (I am a sheep rancher who depends on grass, after all), we’re seeing grass like we’ve never seen at this time of year. And yet….

And yet, I’m not quite willing to drive the last nail in the coffin of our 500-year drought. This year has been amazing; who knows what next year will bring. I suspect that many of us whose livelihoods depend (at least in part) on what Mother Nature provides aren’t quite willing to say that this drought is over.

This drought has been transformative in many ways. In 2011, I was still trying to make my living from raising sheep. In addition to managing our own flock of about 250 ewes and selling lamb each Saturday at the Auburn Farmers Market, I worked with Prescriptive Livestock Services and Star Creek Land Stewards to manage a number of targeted grazing contracts in western Placer County. In April 2011, a downpour over Lincoln forced us to try to swim a group of 600 goats across a rain-swollen creek – we ultimately had to wait for the water to go down the next day before getting the goats across the stream. 2011 was a wet year.

Fast forward to January 2017. If I count our replacement ewe lambs (which will be bred to lamb next year), we have 75 head of sheep. I work full-time as a rangeland researcher at UC Davis – and I’ll complete an online master’s degree from Colorado State University in May. We no longer direct-market any lamb. The natural world still shows signs of drought, as well - from the vast acreage of dead ponderosa pines in the Sierra forests to the oak trees that have fallen in this month's storms.

These life changes are all related – at least indirectly – to the drought. Our oldest daughter, Lara, was 14 years old when the drought began – today, she’s halfway through her first year of college at Montana State. Emma, our youngest, was just 8 when the drought hit – she’s lived with drought for a third of her life. I can’t help but think the drought has shaped their lives, as well.

The drought has made me more cautious, I think. I’d like to build up our sheep numbers again, but I want to make sure this wet year isn’t the exception in a more prolonged dry period. Selling sheep was painful, which makes increasing our flock feel risky. And I enjoy my current work immensely – having always been curious by nature, I’m finding that I enjoy research. But there are still times when I look at our little flock of sheep and feel a sense of sadness about what might have been had the drought not come.

In the early spring of 2014, I helped some colleagues launch a SoundCloud site called “Voices from the Drought.” The site features audio recordings from farmers and ranchers throughout California. This afternoon, I listened to the recording I posted to the site in February 2014. At the end of the recording, I said, “What I hope they [my daughters] remember about the drought and our response to it are a couple of things. I hope they remember that they remember that our number one concern was for the health of our land, that we sold sheep so that we could take care of our land through the drought rather than try to make it through with the sheep that we had. The second thing I hope they remember is that we held on. That we were tenacious about it – that we stayed in the sheep business through this dry period. I hope that they take that away and learn something about persistence and hard work through it.” We’ve stayed in the sheep business, albeit at a much smaller scale – and our land, I think, has come through the drought in decent condition.

As I’ve written previously, drought is unlike any other weather phenomenon I’ve experienced. When the rain stops, you know the storm is over – but you don’t know when a drought is over until well after the rain has returned. Don’t get me wrong – I’m thrilled about the moisture and the grass we have in late January 2017. And I’m ecstatic about the amount of snow we have in the Sierra. But I can’t quite bring myself to say the drought is over.


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