With springs and ponds running dry, Marin’s ranchers and farmers are racing to secure their water. The Marin Agricultural Land Trust launched a drought resilience and water security initiative this summer to fund improvements to water collection, storage and distribution. Twenty-one projects have been funded at a total cost of $250,000, and MALT’s board approved another round last week, funded by private donations. 

Most of the projects include adding large water tanks to existing infrastructure. The tanks are limited to 5,000 gallons to avoid the need for a building permit, and they allow landowners to truck in water and capture overflow from springs. Ranchers and farmers are also cleaning out springs that have been silted in for decades, connecting pipes to old sources, digging out the bottoms of ponds and creating rain catchment systems. The projects are intended to address the emergency and provide a long-term benefit.

Everyone’s needs are different depending on their operation. Vegetable farms and dairies use the most water, and sheep and beef grazers come in second. It takes about 15,000 gallons of water per acre per week to grow vegetables, and about half of Marin’s fields weren’t planted this year. Dairies must give each cow around 30 gallons of water a day, on top of water they use to rinse manure out of the milking parlor. With labor and gasoline costs rising, many dairies are spending around $15,000 per month to truck in water, said Randi Black, a dairy advisor for the University of California Cooperative Extension.

Sources matter, too. Producers who gather water from springs or ponds that collect runoff are worse off than people with wells that tap into groundwater. Aquifers are more abundant on the east shore of Tomales Bay than in valleys further inland. But nobody is immune.

The effects of the drought have been felt in agriculture since the beginning of 2020. The grazing season was very short, supplemental feed grew slowly and stock ponds never refilled. The crisis took a backseat to the pandemic, and farmers hoped for a bounce-back year. Instead, this winter was even drier, leaving agriculturalists facing tough decisions and complex calculations. Do they sell off herds and risk further flooding the market? Do they hold on and buy extra forage or rent additional pastures? Can they afford to truck in water?

“I’m seeing a lot of frustration, and a lot of hands in the air being like, ‘These are tough times,’” said Eric Rubenstahl, the stewardship program manager for MALT. “Then, following immediately after that, because we are working in a resilient community, is a lot of creativity.”

MALT’s drought resilience initiative builds on the nonprofit’s existing stewardship assistance program but is rolling out at a much faster rate. In the past three years, demand for stewardship assistance increasingly has focused on water development and storage, though there is also great interest in rotational grazing and pasture management, Mr. Rubenstahl said. The program started in 2002 and distributes $200,000 in grants each year, but requests for assistance with water projects have only multiplied. The drought resilience initiative was launched, and the land trust received more applications in the first two weeks than it does during a typical year. 

The program is unique: For the first time ever, farmers and ranchers who have not sold their development rights to MALT can access the funding, an idea spearheaded by the group’s new chief executive officer, Thane Kreiner.

“In addition to the conservation easements, we have a responsibility there to work with the farmers and ranchers and help them develop and embrace practices that create resilience to climate change, and that are both environmentally and economically sustainable,” he said.

Some landowners with MALTed properties don’t think it’s a good idea to offer grants to others, arguing that the perk would incentivize easements; others are excited that MALT is branching out, Mr. Rubenstahl said. The land trust has received 34 inquiries through the initiative, and seven were from landowners without an easement.

Linda Righetti, who runs the 220-acre Crazy R ranch between the Coast Guard training center and Tomales, is one of those landowners. She was already restoring habitat on Stemple Creek, which runs through her land, placing stretches of electric and barbed-wire fencing. Cattle will no longer be able to walk up and drink from the creek, so she needs better water infrastructure beyond her low-flow wells, troughs and two ponds.

Her MALT project includes a 5,000-gallon tank and a rain catchment system built on two large barns. Gutters will be installed along the edges of the metal roofs to carry rain and fog drip to the new tank using gravity. From there, the water can be moved to the troughs or flow into the creek.

Ms. Righetti remembers living through the 1970s drought as a kid. It was the last time Stemple Creek ran dry, and she found turtle shells and fish skeletons. “All sorts of treasures, as we thought of them,” she said. As an adult, it’s more distressing, because she knows that those critters won’t have a home once their waterways evaporate, and her tenant of 25 years reduced his herd from 80 animals to 40.

Mike Giammona, the owner of Millerton Creek Ranch, was one of the first grant recipients to finish his project. The drought caused his natural springs to dry up, so he connected pipes between the ranch’s reservoir and the existing water infrastructure.

John Taylor, the owner of Bivalve Dairy, is adding one tank that will solve three problems. Typically, his springs feeds troughs, and when the troughs fill up the water flows over into the stream. His two ponds evaporate, and he has nowhere to bring trucked water. The tank will allow him to store more water for longer and give trucks a central location to pump water throughout the ranch.

With each water project, MALT staffers visit the site to firm out the design, create a map, complete a landowner agreement and describe the project scope, timing and budget. After construction, they visit again to take pictures and summarize the work. The landowner pays for everything up front and is reimbursed for 85 percent of the project cost, up to $15,000.