Ranchers, farmers fear drought

  • News/--The clouds don't fool George McClelland as he tours one of his livestock ponds, Thursday February 5, 2009 at his dairy in Two Rock. With about two-tenths of an inch during Thursday's storm, the precipitation didn't do much to fill the pond in which he trucks in water to fill the basin for his dairy herd. The silver lining? "At least the grass is green, in 1976 (the last serious drought) it was brown!" (Kent Porter / The Press Democrat)2009

The skies were damp, but North Coast dairy rancher George McClelland was preparing for drought.

McClelland installed $13,000 worth of new water tanks last week at his dairy ranch in the Two Rock Valley west of Petaluma.

Even though showers pelted the region last week, McClelland?s farm reservoirs were still drying up and he was forced to truck in drinking water for his 900 cows and heifers.

?We?ve been hauling the whole month of January,? he said.

The cost of the municipal water from Petaluma and the trucking service amounts to nearly $80 a load. The ranch soon will need six loads a day, a total of about 36,000 gallons. McClelland said he has even considered buying his own water truck as a way to reduce expenses.

In recent days, intermittent rain has returned to the North Coast. But the region?s small reservoirs, which slake the summer thirst of cattle and allow grapevines to turn lush with leaf and fruit, are still drying up from the lack of winter runoff.

And the region?s farmers and ranchers increasingly worry that they may be facing the worst drought in years, one that comes in a time of high feed costs and economic recession.

?It?s not a pretty sight,? said Don DeBernardi, another Two Rock dairyman.

DeBernardi calculates that he is days away from having to truck in water for at least some of his 1,400 cows and heifers. The last time he did so was in 1977, during a drought that is still recalled soberly by those who lived through it.

Farmers expressed gratitude for the strong rains on Friday, as well as the lesser showers Thursday. But they emphasized that the water quickly soaked into the earth. What they need are rains so intense and prolonged that they run off the land and fill near-empty reservoirs.

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