Just two weeks ago, rancher Jim Gates walked the pastures his cattle graze on and pointed out annual grasses like Filaree making seed head in March.
Little clouds of dust swirled up from each step of his rain boots as he walked along the earth of the dry land near Bitney Springs Road.
Gates runs his cows, part of Nevada County Free Range Beef, on dry land and irrigated pastures. He pointed to important forage for his cattle, like subterranean clover, already showing signs the plants typically won’t exhibit until June.
“See here. See these leaves curled up. These plants are wilting in March because there’s no water left in the ground,” he said.
That was before last week’s rain, when as much as three inches were recorded at Bowman Lake, according to Nevada Irrigation District Operations Manager Sue Sindt. An inch and a half fell on Gates’ ranching operations on and around the Trabucco Ranch.
Then the North winds blew.
“It took the water right away. We’re already dry again,” Gates said.
More rain is expected to fall this week with a seven-day forecast showing a slight chance of rain for at least four of those days.
That’s good news for Gates who was forced to purchase $15,000 of hay, above his usual winter supplemental feed, because the grass stopped growing after a drier-than-normal January and February.
Despite a dry winter, Nevada Irrigation District expects to make full irrigation deliveries this year because of above average storage. Early storms in November and December supplied enough snowpack in the high country to keep the district’s water storage at 125 percent of average.
“The net result is we’re not in that bad of shape,” said Sindt.
But if there is below average snowpack runoff in May and June, the amount of storage carried over into next season may fall below average, she said.
This year’s dry winter caused some area farmers and ranchers to watch the days carefully.
“The last two winters have shown that the snowpack is becoming less and less consistent,” said sheep rancher Matthew Shapero of The Buckeye Ranch in Penn Valley.
“This phenomenon is certainly concerning for ranchers who depend both on the rains to promote spring grass growth and the snowpack to fill the reservoirs that feed our irrigation ditches for summer pastures.”
This week, crews from NID will take snow surveys to estimate snowpack, a figure that isn’t expected to be above the 50-60 percent of average range, Sindt said.
Worried about an unsustainable model
Gates is one of several ranchers serving on NID’s Drought Committee. Before last week’s rain, he asked the committee to put water in the historic Gold Rush-era irrigation ditches, fearing grasses would die before the traditional mid-April irrigation season officially begins.
Gates admits, he can’t predict the weather. But he does know his numbers. He paused one recent evening as he sat down to eat breakfast at last to recite numbers over the phone.
NID has 284,000 acre-feet of water storage capacity. Of that, 32,000 acre-feet of water remains in the bottom of the reservoirs. Another 100,000 acre-feet are kept as a buffer, saved for the next year. That leaves 152,000, of which 140,000 to 150,000 is being sold now, Gates said.
“We have practically no margin. There is no cushion … We are in a perpetual drought just by population,” he said.
Sindt says, for now, the gross number of NID customers is not increasing.
When Gates looks at the amount of available water storage in Sierra Nevada lakes, a growing world population and the amount of water it will take to feed that population, he sees a system that is going to have to give at some point.
“It’s not a sustainable model,” he said.
Gates’ concerns mirror those of modern day writers such as Bill McKibben, author of “Eaarth” and Lester R. Brown author of, “Full Planet, Empty Plates.”
Both contend that the path the current world population is on is already tipping the scales as resources are depleted and the planet slips out of balance as seen by an increasing number of heat waves, droughts, wildfires, famines and political unrest.
Monday, Idaho water expert Wendy Pabich, author of “Taking on Water” visited Nevada County to lead a discussion about what individuals can do to limit their water footprint.
“Only time will tell how profoundly we ranchers will need to change our behaviors to adapt to changing weather patterns,” said Shapero, calling ranchers “some of the most responsible water citizens in the county.” “Almost by definition, ranchers are water conservationists… there are few others who know water as well — its importance and value — or are as skilled and efficient as irrigators,” Shapero said.
Philip Zeiter of Family Friendly Farms viewed this year’s dry winter as a gift. It allowed him to develop pastures usually too wet to work with, graze his cows on his neighbor’s pasture and allowed the farm to spend time with a new meat chicken and pasture-raised pork enterprise that wouldn’t have been possible with normal winter weather conditions.
Taking a hard look at the future water supply
Gates leases 38 different parcels of land, 10 of which are irrigated — a total of 3,400 acres in the foothills in Nevada County and as far away as Fallon, Nev. In 2004, he started with 12 head of cattle. This year, he should “crowd 300 head.”
His product has become so popular among folks who want to know where their food comes from that he sells upwards of four 300-pound animals a week for steaks, roasts and hamburger sold locally to markets like SPD and BriarPatch Co-op.
Gates jokes he’s been ranching since he was born. It’s in his blood. His family first came to Nevada County in 1871 by wagon train. His grandfather ranched into his 90s.
Gates, now 62, with no heirs of his own, hopes to follow suit.
Like many farmers, Gates considers himself a steward of the land. By carefully managing the open spaces, he ensures their productivity.
“If I overgraze this land, it takes 10 years to get it back to where it was,” he said.
But if the climate changes to the point of reducing the water supply, if things got bad enough, Gates says he would be put out of business.
“I don’t think there’s any doubt the number of people and the activities of people are changing the climate,” he said.
Without farmers growing food, things could get “real nasty, real quick.”
He says it’s crazy not to be concerned about available water.
Gates sees a sustainable future requiring one of three things: a leveling off of the human population, a much more conservative approach to water usage “for every last one of us” and, finally, the construction of more dams to increase water storage — an unpopular idea among river and native fish-loving locals.
“Going without food isn’t a very popular idea either,” he said.
Contact freelance writer Laura Brown at email@example.com or 530-401-4877