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Struggling with one of the driest years on record

  • Dairy farmer Don DeBernardi spreads rye grass seed at his property on the Sonoma, Marin county line, Monday Dec. 2, 2013. During a normal year, the grass would be several inches deep. (Kent Porter / Press Democrat) 2013

Rex Williams' sheep normally are munching green grass in early December. But this year, one of the driest on record, the land he leases remains mostly brown.

"We planted our winter crop into dust, dry ground," Williams said. Hardly any grass germinated, so Williams has been forced to feed hay to his sheep months earlier than normal.

"It's scary; we've never been in a situation like this before," said Williams, who's been ranching about 23 years. "We've always had some grass to go to."

Sonoma County's Dry Weather

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Facing these pressures, William and his wife expect they may have to reduce their herd of 400 ewes by as much as a third. They've already started selling off some of the weaker sheep.

The Williams aren't alone — ranchers around Sonoma County are grappling with the added cost of feeding their animals more hay earlier in the year because of the arid conditions and lack of grass. Some are watching their ponds dry up and wondering if they'll have to pay to truck in water for their animals to drink. All are hoping December rains will bring them some relief.

Normally, November dumps about 4 inches of rain on the Santa Rosa area, but this year, just 1.08 inches fell, according to the National Weather Service. It was enough to cause some grass to start sprouting on Sonoma County's hillsides, but farmers say that could change if December remains dry.

December is usually one of the wettest months, bringing about 7 inches of rain to Santa Rosa. But Bob Benjamin, a forecaster with the National Weather Service, said there was no chance of significant rain in the next 10 days. He cited a 10 percent chance of rain on Tuesday and a small possibility of light showers over the weekend.

Since Jan. 1, 2013, Santa Rosa has received 8.30 inches of rainfall, compared with a historical average of 26.36 inches of rain by Dec. 3, according to Press Democrat records. The annual average is 32.22 inches of rain.

An experimental, long-range forecast recently predicted mostly dry conditions for California in the months to come. The Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences at the University of Colorado, Boulder conducted the forecast for the California Department of Water Resources.

The Sonoma County Water Agency does not rely on long-range forecasts, said Chief Engineer Jay Jasperse, but nevertheless, officials there are "planning on it to be dry until proven otherwise."


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