Jim Keegan was studying at Chico State when the crushing 1976-77 drought spread across California. “My father had been building his [beef] herd for a long time,” Keegan recalled. “But he had to sell it all.”
That drought is remembered as the worst two years for lack of rainfall in California’s recorded weather history. But it’s a memory that may fade as the Golden State’s most recent drought enters its third year. Experts say 2013 was the driest year on record for much of the state.
The year was highly discouraging for Keegan Ranch, located in the picturesque Bear Valley, outside Williams, Calif., north of Sacramento. It brings to mind far too clearly the drought endured by Keegan’s father.
Bear Valley, in Colusa County, is known widely for its thick carpet of wild flowers, yellow tidy tips and orange poppies. Scattered oaks, brush and tall grasses cover the foothills of the Pacific Coast Range and nearby Snow Mountain. In wetter years, this is lush country. In drought, it is brown and dusty. Keegan’s cattle graze lifeless stubble and he is hauling in loads of expensive hay and water a couple of times a week to sustain the herd.
“I didn’t want to sell all my cattle like my father,” Keegan said. But he revealed that 200 cows have already been shipped from Keegan Ranch. Fortunately — if that’s the right word — cattle prices are high, which eased the pain of culling his herd. But that wasn’t Keegan’s plan. Forced sales in a drought are for survival. It is not a ranching business plan.
“Hopefully, I can hang onto the cattle I have,” Keegan said. “Hopefully, that will be enough to make good on my obligations.”
If California cattlemen aren’t shipping cows, they are weaning calves 30 to 90 days early. Without grass and hay, they also are competing for depleted and less nutritious sources of forage and feed with dairy producers. Dairies are turning to sorghum, increasingly produced as an alternative to more water-hungry corn, as an inadequate replacement for corn.
Corn and wheat silage are in short supply and reduced cotton production means lower supplies of cottonseed, an important source of energy and fat in dairy rations.
For all of 2013, Keegan recorded 4.5 inches of rain. Twenty-three inches is normal. “To tell you the truth, I’m getting a little tired of these dry years. I felt for the people in Texas and Oklahoma when they went through this. But I guess I’m finding that sympathy only goes so far.”
As does money. Both California and Washington, D.C., are pledging hundreds of millions in drought relief assistance. The money will be used to meet food and mortgage needs, to improve water-conservation practices and to upgrade water-delivery systems. But money does not address long-running debates over water. These are arguments that go well beyond drought relief.
In California, there has been a decades-long struggle for water among thirsty city folk, crop and livestock farmers, and environmentalists who battle mightily to deliver water to fish, fowl and mammals. Agricultural leaders believe there is plenty of evidence to show the fish are winning over the farmers and ranchers.
BREAKING A CONTRACT
The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, which operates the Central Valley Project, is one of two major suppliers of water in California. In February water contractors on the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers were notified they should expect 40% of their regular water deliveries this year, the least ever delivered and an amount well below contractual obligations.
“We were actually a little surprised that it was as low as 40%, to be honest with you,” Thaddeus Bettner, general manager of the Glenn-Colusa Irrigation District, told the Chico Enterprise-Record. “We’re just trying to take it all in right now and figure out how we’re going to respond.”
Glenn-Colusa is the largest water district in the Sacramento Valley, with about 140,000 acres of irrigated farmland pulling water from the Sacramento River. The river is a critical source of habitat for state and federally listed, threatened and endangered species of fish. It appears the fish will have ample room to swim in 2014, while some predict 60% of the land in the Glenn-Colusa Irrigation District will not be planted this year. The region accounts for about half of California’s rice production.
Farmers in this water district — those who hold historical contracts for water — will do better than others in the Central Valley Project, however. At the end of February, the Bureau of Reclamation announced that farmers without long-held delivery contracts could expect no irrigation water this year. They received only 20% of their normal allotments in 2013.
Those sitting at the highest levels of government see little need to debate the fish versus farmer issue. While they are willing to spend money on drought relief, neither the Obama administration nor that of California Gov. Jerry Brown will discuss redirecting water meant for fish to irrigate dry crop fields.
This drought has been building for two years. Some decent rains fell over northern California a few weeks ago, but there is a long road ahead to full recovery.
“The recent rain did slow cattle liquidation some,” said Randy Perry, animal sciences instructor at Fresno State. “We are a bit better today than we were 10 days ago,” he said of rains that fell in February. “But we are far from out of the woods. Without more rain, we’ll soon be back to where we were.”
The National Weather Service’s Climate Prediction Center sees no retreat in the drought through May, despite the recent rain. For all but a tiny wedge of southern California, the Center actually expects the state’s drought to intensify.
“There is a large-standing high-pressure area off the West Coast that has brought this extensive drought pattern to the region,” said DTN Senior Ag Meteorologist Bryce Anderson. “We do not look for this high to relax to any great extent going into spring. There is a chance that the far northern sections of the state will get some moisture, but for the productive heartland of the San Joaquin Valley, the outlook is for the dryness to continue through spring.”
For the water year, which begins October 1, almost the entire state’s water year precipitation is running from 50% to 90% below normal. The state’s major reservoirs sit at 35% of their normal levels. They will get no relief from snow. The snow pack in the Sierra Nevada Mountains was 85% below normal through the winter.
California’s State Water Project (SWP), the other major supplier of water in the state, announced early this year that it will not release any water for farmers — the first time that has happened in the 54-year history of the SWP. The means 500,000 to 750,000 acres will likely go unplanted in the Central Valley.
“The situation is compounded by the fact that throughout the western U.S., drought conditions are mostly at extreme levels. That means water from the Colorado River is running far below average, which means lower supplies in southern California, as well, from Lake Mead,” Anderson said.
Four weeks ago, the entire state of California was rated abnormally dry, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor. More than 90% of the state was suffering from at least severe drought. Fifteen percent of California was suffering from exceptional drought — the worst rating used to describe drought intensity. Cattleman Keegan sits in the middle of extreme drought, one level down from exceptional.
This drought has outsized importance to the rest of the nation because California is overwhelmingly agriculturally rich. With the fifth most number of farms in the U.S., California sells more agricultural products than any other state.
California’s Central Valley is home to one-third of the nation’s fruit and vegetable production. It is a leading producer of rice and ranks in the top five in the U.S. for beef production. It is the top dairy state and is usually among the top five of the nation’s cotton-producing states. There are 600,000 planted acres of wine grapes in California, which produces 90% of all U.S. wine by volume.
At best, all of California agriculture is stressed. At worst, a large amount of it is at risk. Farmers will divert limited supplies of irrigation water to valuable vines and trees, away from many row crops. Some farmers and water systems operate irrigation wells, but the wells are stressed by constant use and, in any case, will not overcome the drought.
California farmers have come far in the practice of water conservation, said Dave Franz, spokesman for the California Farm Bureau Federation. “They are a lot more efficient; they get more crop for every drop. But you still need a certain minimum amount of water.”