Drought stalks the Eastside

Cattle, crops decline; experts say another dry winter will be devastating

The hot, dry summer of 2013 is not over.

But for some farmers, it might as well be.

Last week, when the National Weather Service posted a notice that all Eastern Sierra counties are in a state of severe drought, it was no surprise to the ranchers and farmers in the region.

Agriculture is a major revenue source for Mono and Inyo counties, (following recreation and tourism,) contributing about $77 million in 2012.

While wells and surface water can weather a dry winter, two very dry winters in a row are beginning to take their toll on local agricultural producers.

“It’s the worst in a long time, and certainly the worst in the 12 years I’ve been here,” said Nathan Reade, the deputy agricultural commissioner for Mono and Inyo counties.

“Two years ago, the winter before was one of the biggest on record, and that created a buffer that helped ranchers and farmers get through that winter,” he said.

“They don’t have that luxury this year.”

The problem is especially pronounced in Inyo County where the snowpack came in considerably lower than for Mono County.

 “Some of the farmers with the row crops (like alfalfa), when you run out of water, that’s it,” Reade said. “Where they normally would get four or five cuttings, growing several crops between spring and when it freezes, if there is no water for irrigation, that’s it, they are done.”

“If irrigation with surface water cannot support a herd, they are going to have to sell more calves and sell them earlier,” he said. “Otherwise, they would have to supplemental feed them and at a certain point, that costs more than it’s worth.

“If they don’t have a good winter this year, I can see a few of them not making it,” he said.

Rain fell in Inyo County last week, but it was a punishing, brutal rain that flashed waves of raging water through canyons and ravines, creating flash floods that closed U.S. 395 and seriously damaged the Manzanar historic site as well as many other roads and infrastructure.

“It was also too late,” Reade said. “Especially in the south end of Inyo County, there’s no place to store all that water. It just ran off.”

The prognosis for Mono County, while not great, is better compared to Inyo County.

First, the Mammoth area was one of the state’s best performers for snow with around 80 percent of normal snowpack compared to snowpacks ranging from about 25 percent of normal to around 60 percent of normal in Inyo County and the rest of the Sierra.

Second, according to Mono County Supervisor Tim Fesko, whose northern district covers the Walker/Coleville area and the agriculture-rich Antelope Valley, Mother Nature helped out a bit—even though this past winter was still relatively dry.

“The snow that did come came in early, in December and January,” he said. “Then it settled into the mountains and packed down into ice. That kind of snow takes a long time to melt, which is why the rivers and creeks in North County don’t look as bad right now as the numbers might seem like they should look. They got the snow at the right time, at the best time.”

Bad as it seems, Reade said, the biggest advantage local ranchers and farmers have going for them is a vast amount of experience.

“Many of these families have been here for generations,” he said. “They have seen it all and they know how to work with the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (which leases water to most of the Eastern Sierra’s agricultural producers). They know how to manage their lands.”

Once a drought is declared—there are various levels at which this can happen—federal programs that allow low interest emergency loans or collecting on insured crops are triggered, allowing agricultural producers more flexibility in weathering the drought, Reade said.