North Bay dairy farmers told Sonoma County officials Monday that their drought-ravaged rangeland is parched worse today than during the prolonged dry spell of 1976-77.

What they heard back sounded just as dire: Without significant rain in the next five months, grape growers and other farmers could see production take a nose dive, city dwellers could face mandatory water rationing and the county this summer could exhaust storage in Lake Mendocino, one of its two key reservoirs.

"We really are behind the eight ball," Grant Davis, general manager of the county Water Agency, told the dairy owners.

More than three dozen farmers and government officials gathered Monday at the Two Rock fire station and social hall at the invitation of south county Supervisor David Rabbitt.

The meeting came after the federal government on Friday officially declared that Sonoma County agriculture is struggling through drought, said county Agricultural Commissioner Tony Linegar. The designation was separate from Gov. Jerry Brown's drought declaration Jan. 17.

As a result of the federal declaration, farmers may become eligible for both low-interest loans and for some reimbursement on crop losses.

On Monday, farmers urged the county to help haul water to slake the thirst of dairy cattle in Sonoma and Marin counties. That occurred 38 years ago, in what previously was the worst modern drought.

County water trucks then ran 10 hours a day, seven days a week, for 18 months, Linegar said, "and they hauled a lot of water to a lot of dairies."

As well, farmers recalled that dairy tankers from the old Petaluma cooperative creamery brought potable water to dairies and hauled back milk.

County officials said they will explore who could haul water and where it would come from. They said one source might be tertiary treated wastewater, but organic farmers said they are prohibited from letting their cattle drink it.

While water for livestock is one concern, a bigger worry for some is feed. Farmers told Rabbitt that in 1976 they had received enough rain to start grass growing and provide some feed for their herds. Today they lack such forage.

"People don't realize how bad this really is," said Don DeBernardi, a Two Rock dairy rancher.

George McClelland said he has been hauling water for his 1,000 dairy cows since November. But he spends far more to feed his herd.

He estimated he is paying about $3 a day per head for feed. He is hoping to get some relief from 800 acres that he planted in silage, but that still depends on the weather.

"We're just praying the rains will come," McClelland said.

Precipitation is forecast to come starting this week, but the question now is how much relief it can provide. Rabbitt suggested that rainfall totals are so far below normal that some damage can't be undone.

He noted that the hills around Two Rock normally would be green even in winter. Now "they're dry as hell."

Even so, officials said, without rain soon, agriculture will suffer more. Some vineyards may have to forego much production in order to use what water they have "just to keep the vines alive," Linegar said.

The Water Agency, meanwhile, is asking the cities that buy its water to cut consumption by 20 percent, Davis said. Collectively that would amount to a savings of 3 billion gallons this year.

Rabbitt added that the cutbacks for city dwellers could become mandatory.

After the 1976 drought, county voters approved the construction of Warm Springs Dam northwest of Healdsburg. Today the lake stands 66 percent full with about 166,000 acre feet of water.

But Lake Mendocino outside Ukiah holds just 25,000 acre feet of water, less than in 1976, Davis said. To conserve what remains, the Water Agency recently received approval to cut flows from the lake into the Russian River.

Nonetheless, Davis acknowledged that in a worst-case scenario, the Water Agency could exhaust its supply in Lake Mendocino before autumn, typically the start of the rainy season.

"You could see us actually not able to take water out of Lake Mendocino in summer," Davis said.

You can reach Staff Writer Robert Digitale at 521-5285 or robert.digitale@pressdemocrat.com