Even on the North Coast — California’s only rainforest — a severe drought is in effect, causing farmers and some residents to brace for the worst.
California is nearly as dry as it’s ever been. High water marks rim half-full reservoirs. Cities are rationing water. Clerics are praying for rain. Ranchers are selling cattle, and farmers are fallowing fields.
Gov. Jerry Brown formally proclaimed a drought Friday, saying California is in the midst of perhaps its worst dry spell in a century, the Associated Press reported. He made the announcement amid increasing pressure from lawmakers and as firefighters battled flare-ups in a Southern California wildfire that chased thousands of people from their homes.
Local farmer Blake Alexandre of Alexandre Family EcoDairy Farms welcomed the governor’s announcement, saying “the main thing is to bring the awareness to the agricultural side,” he said. “If we can get everyone to conserve, it should help.”
After three wells on the family’s Fort Dick property dried up for the first time ever last fall, EcoDairy Farms will have to spend more than $800,000 on grass and alfalfa hay to feed livestock that would normally be fed with hay grown on its own property.
“We approximately grow 4,500 tons of hay to feed cows, and this year we’re short 3,000 tons,” Alexandre said.
The Alexandres also grow hay in Modoc County, typically harvesting three cuttings before the well dries up. This year, the Modoc well went dry during the first cut.
Brown encouraged people to voluntarily conserve water but said his administration is considering a mandatory conservation order.
“I think the drought emphasizes that we do live in an era of limits, that nature has its boundaries,” the governor said.
Farmers and ranchers in the nation’s No. 1 farm state already are making hard choices to conserve.
Alexandre is buying hay from as far away as Idaho and Utah, and the operation has also had to sell some animals to keep up.
Some cities across the state are in danger of running out of water, but Crescent City’s public water system is expected to stay intact.
The water collector for Crescent City’s system taps into an aquifer 30 feet below the Smith River, so the Smith would have to virtually dry up before taps stopped flowing, said Eric Wier, public works director for Crescent City.
“We’re in a unique situation and this is something that we’ll monitor, but we don’t anticipate any impacts at this time,” Wier said.
While many parts of the state experienced the all-time driest year in the 1920s, the North Coast’s previous driest rain year on record was July 1976 to June 1977. During that year, Crescent City provided free, public water from a hydrant in Beachfront Park for months to help dozens of people in Fort Dick and Smith River whose private wells had ran dry.
“It was available for anyone that needed to get water,” said Mike Young, who was Crescent City’s city manager at that time. The city turned off the fountain at Tsunami Landing and limited irrigation.
“If you were hooked up to city water you really didn’t have a problem, but we made every effort to conserve, as an example if nothing else,” Young said.
Alexandre said that farming organically for the last 15 years has actually buffered the impact of the drought.
“The soils tend to build up in terms of organic matter and require less water; there’s more of a sponge-like effect,” he said.
Like this winter, during the ’76-’77 drought there was a hovering ridge of high pressure that steered main storms over and around the North Coast, dumping snow on the Rockies, according to Nancy Dean, meteorologist in charge at the National Weather Service office in Eureka.
This year is shaping up to be even drier.
“The worst part of our December is that we didn’t even get an inch,” Dean said, adding that Crescent City’s December rain is typically closer to 12-14 inches.
Much of the state has been designated as being in “extreme” drought conditions, but Del Norte, Humboldt, and Trinity counties’ drought has only been designated as “severe.”
Del Norte’s closest ski areas, Mount Ashland Ski Area and Mount Shasta Ski Park, have been unable to open due to lack of snow. Mt. Ashland replaced its 50 year anniversary party planned for last Saturday with a “Pray for Snow Party.”
The drought doesn’t bode well for California’s notorious wildfire season, either.
Previous super-dry years led to catastrophic wildfire seasons in California in 2003 and 2007, said Tom Scott, a natural resources specialist with the University of California system. Fire crews beat back a wildfire northeast of Los Angeles earlier this week, but it was a stark reminder of the dry and dangerous conditions.
“People say that the fire season is starting early, but I guess you could say it never ended,” Scott said. “If you live in the backcountry, come July you probably should be thinking about putting your valuables in storage.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.