When I was 9 years old, our well went dry. My family lived east of Sonora, and the 1976-77 drought did in our groundwater. Most of what I remember about those years was my folks being stressed about the added expense of having to hook into a community water system. And I can remember the reservoirs in the foothills being dismally low. But I was just a kid – that drought didn’t really have any consequences on my daily life.
Fast forward to 2013-15. We went nearly 2 months without rain during our normal rainy season. We had a fire near our winter sheep pasture – in February! We sold ewes, weaned our lambs earlier than normal, and made it through. Scientists called it the “Millennial Drought,” the driest stretch in more than a thousand years. I assumed it was the worst drought I’d ever experience. Then it rained in 2015-16. And we had one of the wettest years on record the following year. We’d survived – we were still ranching.
Over the last several weeks, however, I’ve had occasion to talk to ranching colleagues who ranched through the 1976-77 drought, and whose families are still ranching today. I’ve talked to colleagues who also made it through the Millennial Drought. And they all agree: 2021 is the worst year they can remember. Maybe I was wrong about the Millennial Drought being the worst I’d ever experience.
The severity of this year’s drought reflects the “perfect” combination of a variety of factors. The 2019-20 water year was drier than normal. After a particularly warm autumn, we got a late start to our rainy season in November 2020 – the grass on our winter rangeland didn’t germinate until around Thanksgiving. Below average rainfall in November and December was somewhat offset by an above average January – but February and March were dry, and April was dismal. And our usual May rainfall hasn’t arrived at all. In the mountains, where our summer water arrives as winter snow, the dry fall meant that the snow fell on top of dry soil. As the winter snow melted, most of it soaked into the ground rather than running off into creeks and rivers – and eventually into reservoirs. Even the water planning professionals are befuddled by this year’s disappointing runoff conditions.
But this year has taught me (again) that drought is more than just a lack of water in my rain gauge. The dry soils here in the foothills never did become saturated enough to get the seasonal creeks running or the stock ponds filling. The blue oaks came out of dormancy earlier than usual, increasing their demand for water at a time when the soil had none to give. Over the last 60 days, we’ve had more north wind than I can ever remember – which has pulled even more moisture out of the vegetation and the soil. The fire professionals tell us that fire danger is more like a normal July than May.
Our irrigation district is beginning to discuss mandatory cutbacks in water deliveries – the lack of storage in the mountains may mean that our irrigation water will shut off 30-45 days early, which will mean less irrigated pasture at a key point in our production year – we manage for green grass in the month leading up to breeding, which maximizes the number of lambs born the next spring.
Last year’s dryness spooked me a bit. We were nervous about our fall forage, so we cut our sheep numbers by 15 percent. Headed into this summer, we feel as though we have enough forage to feed our ewes next fall, even if we get another late start to the grass year. We’ll keep fewer feeder lambs than typical, to allow us to keep enough replacement ewe lambs to maintain our numbers. But this drought will mean additional expenses this year, and (potentially) less income next year.
Other ranchers have had to take more drastic actions already. I have friends who have sold 30 percent of their cows; others who weaned their calves and lambs months earlier (and lighter) than usual. You might think this is an easy decision, but consider what a 30 percent loss of equity in your home would do to your financial health. These decisions have long-term consequences. Selling cows this year means less income for years to come. Selling lambs early might change our relationship with our buyers. All of this impacts the ranch-specific genetics that many of us have spent lifetimes building. I can’t simply run down the auction and buy sheep that fit our ranch.
The term “climate change” is politically fraught – a sure way to start an argument in a rural community. Even so, most of the ranchers I know think that the climate is changing. If we leave the politics (e.g., the cause) aside, most of us have spent our entire ranching careers adapting to climate variability. What frightens me, though, is the pace of change we seem to be experiencing now. In 2016-17, we experienced the wettest year in my lifetime in the Sierra Foothills. Just four years later, we’re experiencing the driest year. These extremes make planning difficult. Mitigating these challenges at a global scale seems beyond my personal capacity. What can I do?! On the other hand, adaptation is critical – and adaptation is something I can do on my own. Maybe I was wrong about 2013-15 being the worst drought of my lifetime; maybe I can learn to adapt to this new reality.