Districts urge conservation as state declares emergency

01/23/2014

The drought declaration issued by Governor Jerry Brown last Friday that called on citizens to voluntarily curtail water use by 20 percent could ease the way for Marin ranchers to secure aid for parched operations. Meanwhile two local water districts—Marin Municipal Water District and Bolinas Community Public Utility District—are asking customers to cut water usage by 25 percent, and a recent report from the National Weather Service says drought conditions are likely to continue through the end of April.

Sam Dolcini, the president of the Marin County Farm Bureau, said the drought declaration brought attention to the agricultural community’s worsening struggle. “We’re counting hay bales and how much we have left for cows,” he said. That hay is not just more and more expensive as the drought continues, but the quality of what is available is dwindling.

The last drought declaration was issued as recently as 2009, by then-Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger. After several more dry years, the county faced the driest on record in 2013, forcing some producers to sell cattle they can no longer afford to feed. The emergency declaration could help them document their need for government assistance, said David Lewis, the director at the University of California Cooperative Extension in Marin. 

The United States Department of Agriculture began offering low-interest emergency loans of up to $500,000 last summer after designating Marin and Sonoma as primary disaster areas. Val Dolcini, the head of the state division of the U.S.D.A. that administers several farm assistance programs, expects that designation will be renewed. The agency also administers a crop disaster assistance program; those that pay into it are covered for a small portion of losses for crops—including livestock forage—for the coming year. 

Loren Poncia of Stemple Creek Ranch in Tomales said that current prices for loads of hay were between $6,000 to $8,000—twice as much as they were five years ago.  

The federal farm bill will offer additional drought-related assistance, and
possibly grant programs to provide funds to cattle ranchers to offset the cost of supplemental feed. But the bill has been stuck in Congress since the previous bill lapsed last September. 

Val Dolcini encouraged anyone seeking help to reach out to their local Farm Service Agency (the closest is in Petaluma). Apparently many are already doing just that. “The phones are ringing off the hooks in all of our county offices,” he said.

The drought has not hit local row crop farmers as severely, but Mr. Lewis said farmers are considering what choices they will make as they prepare for this year’s harvest. Some might plant fewer water-hungry crops, like leafy greens, and focus more on root vegetables, he said.

Peter Martinelli, who owns Fresh Run Farm in Bolinas, is trying to remain optimistic about coming rains. But if those rains don’t measure up—he wants at least 15 inches—he said he would increase his root vegetable crop and even raise animals like sheep on the cover crop already growing on his field. He might also seek extra, non-agriculturally related work to get him through the season. 

On Tuesday, Marin Municipal Water District, which serves the San Geronimo Valley as well as much of eastern Marin, asked for a voluntary 25 percent cut in water use—twice what the district had previously asked and beyond the Governor’s 20 percent request. 

Last week the district announced it would draw from Phoenix Lake, just west of Kentfield. The lake is one of two reservoirs reserved for dry years and the second-smallest of all seven district reservoirs. Aside from tapping it for a brief two-week period in 2009, Phoenix Lake hasn’t been used for 20 years, district spokeswoman Libby Pischel said. 

The Bolinas Community Public Utility District is also asking for 25 percent cut in residential use and requesting the cessation of all landscape irrigation. The district’s two reservoirs currently have about 10 million gallons of water, and mandatory rationing could begin if that reserve approaches 8 million.

North Marin Water District’s wells, served by Lagunitas Creek, are sufficient for now. Chris DeGabriele, the district’s general manager, said that if the area does not see around 20 inches of rain, it will call for a 15 percent voluntary reduction in use from April to June and a 25 percent reduction from July to the end of October, the typical conclusion to the dry season. Not only do they expect flows from the creek to be slower than usual, but salinity intrusion from nearby Tomales Bay would also be more severe with lagging creek waters.

Neither is the Inverness Public Utility District, which sources water mostly from First Valley and Second Valley Creeks, asking for any conservation measures, though water levels are below normal. Jim Fox, the chief of operations for the district, surmised that the area’s geology accumulates water and fog over a period of years that then slowly makes it way out through springs that feed the creeks. Demand, he added, has remained low this winter, despite the drought.

All water districts in Marin will present plans for managing the drought to the county Board of Supervisors next Tuesday.