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No rain in sight

  • Charles Rubin of Petaluma walks past ponds at Shollenberger Park that would normaly be full of water and waterfoul at this time of the year but without rain have become dry and lifeless on Monday evening December 30, 2013.

Facing the driest year since California began keeping records in 1849, water officials and area farmers are crossing their collective fingers that the coming months will bring rain -#8212; and lots of it.

"If you know a rain dance, you should perform it now," said Cordel Stillman, deputy chief engineer for the Sonoma County Water Agency. "I try not to be too dramatic, but it's going to be catastrophic if this continues."

Since Jan. 1, 2013, Santa Rosa, the nearest gauge the water agency monitors, has received just 5.7 inches of rain, compared to 32.5 inches in a normal year. It's a trend repeated across the state, causing some legislators to ask Gov. Jerry Brown to declare a drought emergency. Sonoma County's reservoir at Lake Mendocino has dropped to dangerously low levels, around 30 percent of capacity; although the Lake Sonoma reservoir is a bit more robust at 70 percent of capacity. But that won't be the case for much longer, assuming the dearth of rain continues.

"We like to see these reservoirs gaining (in water levels) this time of year," said Brad Sherwood, spokesman for the water agency. "I think people are aware it's dry, but the severity of it this year, I'm not sure people understand how bad it is."

Proprietors at Petaluma's agriculture businesses are acutely aware of how bad the drought is this year. Many expect to see an increase in the cost of doing business, but aren't sure yet how high the added expenses will climb.

"It's hard to predict what's going to happen," said Jessica McIsaac, who helps her husband, Neil, McIsaac III manage his family's Neil McIsaac - Son Dairy. "Every day we measure our water tanks to make sure we know what we have to work with. You can get in a desperate situation very quickly."

So far this year, McIsaac said the situation is manageable on the farmland that practices traditional dry farming techniques. The family dairy has a dammed reservoir with enough water for their herd of more than 500 cattle; with streams that provide potable water for drinking, showering and other needs. But after a few more weeks with no rain, that supply will dissipate. McIsaac recalled 2010, when the dam went dry.

"When that happens, we need to truck in three to four loads of water every day for our cattle," she said, explaining that it becomes almost a full-time job for her husband, who is the only one trained to fill the tanker with water purchased from the city. "That can get very expensive."

Then there's the issue of feed. By now, cattle are usually grazing on fields spotted with green grass, but in a drought year, fresh food has to be trucked to the property. Because McIsaac - Sons is an organic dairy, they only source organic feed, which will be harder to find this year.

"There's only so much organic hay to come by, and every (farmer) is looking for a little bit more in a drought year," McIsaac said, explaining that the increased demand drives prices up. "You have to think ahead and start saving for that early."


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