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

Struggling with one of the driest years on record

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."

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."

Recorded rainfall for the year to date is the lowest in almost 120 years, he said. That's according to information collected by the National Climatic Data Center at its Ukiah station, where 7.18 inches fell between January and Dec. 1 of 2013. The water agency pays special attention to that station because of its proximity to Lake Mendocino.

"The question we're all asking ourselves is, 'Is this 1976 and moving into 1977?'" Jasperse said, referring to record drought years when many ranchers were forced to truck in water at great expense.

Cheryl LaFranchi, who has about 300 head of cattle northwest of Calistoga, recalled having to do so during that time. This year, her storage ponds are getting low again, though they're still a couple inches above the point where she'd have to start hauling water for her cattle.

But the spring that supplies her house has already gone dry, and for the past two months she's had to pay $175 every week and a half for water to be trucked in from Windsor. "This has been as dry as anybody can remember," she said.

Her pastures, normally green by mid-November, are mostly barren, she said. She estimated that she is using double the amount of hay she normally would at this time of year.

So is Joe Pozzi, who has a sheep and cattle operation in Valley Ford.

Don DeBernardi, a rancher with about 1,600 cattle in the Two Rock area, is having to use more hay, too. "We've got no feed, and we're running out of water. Normally, we have grass, but now we don't have anything," he said.

His ponds, which he uses to water his cattle, are "way down," he said. They're dropping every day, and he said it's questionable whether his water supply will last.

"We're gonna have to see what Mother Nature does," he said. "Usually, she works it all out. This year, I don't know."

You can reach Staff Writer Jamie Hansen at 521-5205 or jamie.hansen@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter at @JamieHansen.

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