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.
?What we?ve had is just enough to keep the grass growing for the folks with pasture,? said Kathy Reese, whose family?s Denner Ranches operates vineyards and leases to others pasture and vegetable fields west of Santa Rosa.
The rain helps, she said, but ranchers often won?t be able to keep cattle on those pastures in summer without enough water stored in reservoirs.
In the farmlands west of Santa Rosa, dairy pastures, vineyards and vegetable fields prematurely ran out of treated wastewater from the regional municipal system last summer. The situation looks even more dire this year, with the wastewater ponds controlled by Santa Rosa now holding only 25 percent of their normal winter volumes.
?We?re very concerned about how much water we?re going to have for irrigation,? said Robert Muelrath, president of the Sonoma County Farm Bureau. Muelrath uses the highly treated wastewater to raise pumpkins and squash and to irrigate pasture for feeding dairy heifers.
City dwellers who rely on the Russian River for drinking water recently learned that they may face mandatory conservation for their lawns and landscaping this summer. And grape growers, especially those between Healdsburg and Ukiah, could face significant water shortages.
Ranchers said a drought could again force up hay prices, which also occurred last summer. That would add to the pain of dairy and beef ranchers who are facing depressed prices for both milk and beef.
California farms and ranches suffered last year from below-average rainfall. County farm officials from around the state estimated those drought losses at more than $300 million.