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Drought costs rising, North Bay farmers discuss emergency measures

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.


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