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Stories from the valley

Five Feet of Precipitation – or careful what you wish for!

Contributed by Dan Macon

You’d be hard-pressed to find a California farmer or rancher who wasn’t wishing for an end to our epic drought. Just as there are no atheists in foxholes, even the non-religious were praying for rain during the last 5 years. At least for this water year, our prayers have been answered – and then some! As I write this, we’ve measured 7.21 inches in April. Most impressively, we’ve surpassed 62 inches of rain for the season (since October 1, 2016) – twice our average annual rainfall. We’ve had enough rain, finally, that California Governor Jerry Brown declared an end to our drought. But even in this record setting year, we seem to be seeing the lingering effects of the driest (and hottest) stretch in the last 500 years.

After such a drought, a single wet year won’t result in a full recovery. For example, we’ve had more than 15 inches more rain this season than we measured in the next wettest year since we’ve lived in Auburn. Even so, we haven’t had standing water in our pastures for more than a day or two until this month. The seasonal creeks that flow through our winter grazing land seemed to flow for a week or so after particularly heavy rains – but then they’d quit. Much of the rain seems to have soaked in rather than run off – a good thing for groundwater supplies! Nonetheless, these phenomena suggest that we had a huge moisture deficit.

Part of what made this most recent drought unique were the unusually warm winter temperatures we experienced. During several dry winters, some of our deciduous oaks never lost their leaves. Many of our annual grass species matured earlier than normal. This winter, while the high Sierra received record amounts of snow, the mid elevations (4,000 to 5,500 feet above sea level) seemed to be mostly free of snow when I traveled through the mountains.

As a rancher, I find that my daily life (and my livelihood) are so closely connected with weather and climate that I pay close attention – perhaps more attention than a normal person! An Australian researcher noted that during that country’s prolonged drought, many farmers and ranchers were checking the weather apps on their smart phones 20-30 times a day. During the depths of our drought, I found myself looking at multiple forecasts each day for some glimmer of hope. My memories of that time inform the current management of our sheep. We’re cautious about making sure we go into the fall months with enough forage to hold the sheep until spring even if we don’t get much rain. We spend more time planning our grazing months in advance. We’re even more convinced that resting some pastures during the growing season is an important insurance policy against extended dry periods.

Regardless of what the future climate brings us, we’re awfully wet here in Auburn. I guess 60 inches of rain in a region that normally gets 30 inches will do that! Since we sold two-thirds of our sheep during the drought, I swore I’d never complain about rain again – and I’m not complaining now! That said, I certainly enjoy the sunshine when it returns! And I’m thrilled to have more grass than our sheep can possibly consume this spring!