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Recent rain a small relief to Sonoma County ranchers


For the first time in more than a year, the hills and pastures of Sonoma County are sporting a faint haze of green.

"We asked for it; we got it," said Santa Rosa rancher Doug Beretta, contemplating the astonishing fact that his fields have gone from tarmac-hard bare dirt to boot-sucking mud lakes in less than a week.

Between Friday and Sunday, rain fell in torrents over the region, dropping up to 15 inches in Sonoma County and 12 inches in Napa County. Santa Rosa got nearly 6.5 inches, coming close to equalling the total from all of 2013, just 8.7 inches.

Although area ranchers are still relying on imported feed to maintain herds that usually would be out on pastures, they say the rain has bought them some breathing room, refilling small ponds, recharging groundwater and promising at least some scrubby growth for pasturing livestock in the spring.

The rain didn't do as much for city folk. Water managers were quick to say that even such a monster rain fell far short of refilling the reservoirs that supply North Coast cities from Santa Rosa south to San Rafael. "It was not a drought buster," Sonoma County Water Agency spokesman Brad Sherwood said.

For the area's agricultural community, however, the soaking was met with a cautious cheer.

"It was a miracle rain for the North Coast," Sonoma County Farm Bureau Executive Director Tim Tesconi said.

The effect was most pronounced for livestock ranchers, who have seen their grass-covered pastures turn to dust and their reservoirs dry out, promising an expensive year of buying feed and water on an increasingly frantic market.

"The rain was good. Period. Capital G, capital O's, capital D," said Sonoma rancher and grapegrower Ray Mulas.

The fields are beginning to green, he said, and springs in the hills are beginning to run again, promising the possibility of wild greens for livestock to munch on.

"It's looking good," Mulas said. "We need more."

Welcome as it was, ranchers say, this rain was not a fix for more than a year of bone-dry weather.

"The bottom line is we won't know how this affected us for 30-45 days," said Sebastopol sheep rancher Rex Williams.

At that point, he said, it will be clear how healthy the grass that is sprouting now really is. Chances are that even if there is enough rain and warm weather to keep the new sprouts growing, the crop will be poor compared with a normal year.

"We're still holding in the same management patterns as before the rain," he said. "What (the rain) does, I hope, is help buy us some time in the spring" to put animals out in the pastures.

By "management pattern," he means selling much of his flock to preserve what little pasture and water his acres can produce. He's down from his usual 400 sheep to only around 180 - and still eyeing cutting more.

"It's not pessimism; it's reality," he said.

That reality check is not misplaced, State Climatologist Michael Anderson said Wednesday. Although the stubborn high pressure system that kept California dry throughout 2013 finally has broken up, projections show below-average rainfall though the summer.

The change in the prevailing weather pattern just means "that there is more variability so there is a possibility (of rain) instead of zero," he said.

Long range forecasts suggest that the mid-ocean weather condition known as "El Ni?" could develop over the summer, bringing wetter weather to the West Coast, but even if that happens, it would be next fall before the heavier rain begins to fall, Anderson said.

That means water managers and farmers are looking at a tough summer, even if there is some more rain this spring. Ranchers who work near sewage treatment plants in Santa Rosa and Sonoma have come to rely on the treated wastewater to irrigate their pastures during the dry summers and they are casting a nervous eye on that supply.

With households and businesses conserving water, the storage ponds at treatment plants are well below normal levels. "You don't even know what you can get from them," said Beretta, who uses recycled water from Santa Rosa to irrigate parts of his 400 acres near city limits.

City Utilities Director David Guhin said flows and storage levels at the Santa Rosa sewage treatment plant are the lowest on record for this time of year. City engineers are preparing a first-ever allocation plan to ration the wastewater over the summer, balancing the needs of farmers, urban users such as parks and golf courses, and the geothermal energy project at The Geysers.

Although The Geysers project usually consumes as much as three-quarters of the city's wastewater, Guhin promised that agricultural users will receive an equitable share this summer.

"We will not leave them high and dry," he said.

(You can reach Staff Writer Sean Scully at 521-5313 or sean.scully@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @BeerCountry.)