How ranchers are preparing for another year of drought in Northern California

Skip Descant
Special to the Siskiyou Daily News
File photo - An aerial view of the Klamath Basin in 2019. When the irrigation season officially opens on April 1, some farmers expect that the Water Resources Control Board will notify them that it will not permit diversion of water for irrigation.

A third year of drought in the region means reduced water for agriculture and ranching uses, prompting farmers and business owners to make difficult decisions around cutting back on operations.

“Between the drought and the Scott River water-use curtailments by the State Water Resources Control Board, we are most likely going to have to quit ranching,” said Nancy Burns, an owner and operator of Marble Peaks Ranch in Etna, describing the dire situation in distinctly blunt terms. The ranch raises Corriedale sheep.

The 454-acre property, which is largely in a natural state, with 65 acres of irrigated pasture, relies on water from Miner’s Creek, a tributary of the Scott River, Burns explained.

Drought and other conditions in the area have led to a diminishing water supply, which is being felt by farms across Siskiyou County and the Klamath River Basin.

“Legally we are entitled to irrigate until the beginning of October,” Burns explained, via email. “Yet in the last several years we have had to cease in June. When the irrigation season officially opens on April 1, we expect to be notified by the Water Resources Control Board that no diversion of water for irrigation will be permitted.”

The reasons for the water reductions are all too familiar to both the farm community, and anyone living in the North State. The weather through December was almost giddily wet, as rain and snow made for a promising winter.

The Klamath River winds runs along Highway 96 on Monday, June 7, 2021, near Happy Camp, Calif. Drought and other conditions in the area have led to a diminishing water supply, which is being felt by farms across Siskiyou County and the Klamath River Basin.

“And then we basically flatlined,” said Brian Person, a senior advisor for the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation in the Northern California Area Office.  “And we have been at or near the driest hydrologic period on record, in terms of precipitation and snow-pack since.”

Snowpack in the Klamath Basin was 55% of normal on March 16, Person said, adding it’s still too early to say exactly how deep water allotments would be scaled back. Water officials expect to have a firmer grip on this summer’s water picture after the end of the first full week of April.

“And then the week following we’ll know more,” he added.

The process to determine water availability is an “iterative” one that takes a number of factors into consideration, such as biological obligations related to water releases to support natural habitats.

“There are several significant policy, statutory and contractural commitments that we have that are all in play,” said Person.

If March — with its occasional rain — seemed dry, it was, with precipitation below average particularly across eastern Siskiyou and western Modoc counties, said Ryan Sandler, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Medford, Oregon.

Precipitation for Siskiyou County since the water year began on Oct. 1 is between 50% and 70% of normal. Snowpack for the Mt. Shasta area, taken late February to early March was also far below normal.

A view of Shasta Dam, Lake Shasta and Mt. Shasta on Monday, Feb. 7, 2022. After a wet fall, the dam has received little rain since the beginning of the year. The lake is just 38% full.

“This is the third year in a row with below normal precipitation, adding to the multi-year drought. It has also been warmer than normal, especially in the summers, exacerbating the drought,” said Sandler.

The forecast for next week could bring some precipitation, but weather models are unclear about how wet the weather might be. And the forecast for the last week of March is for near normal precipitation.

“So in a nutshell, not only is there no March Miracle to help with the drought but March will likely worsen the drought,” said Sandler.

And as if the drought’s not enough, high prices for everything from fuel to feed is also weighing heavily on the minds of farmers and ranchers.

“The drought is just part of the problem,” said Amy McLane, an owner and operator of the McLane Family Farm, which raises cattle and swine in Montague. “The other big factor is the price of fuel. Every tractor and truck we use to farm runs on diesel and the price of that has doubled since last year. So I'm just not sure that a small family owned farm like us will be able to make it through this with the increase price of fuel, feed, fertilizer and the drought.”  

The McLanes downsized their herd last year, largely due to the drought, and plans to reduce the number of pigs the farm raises.

“Last year cost us double to irrigate since our water was cut back so much and we had to water longer. And we are expecting that again this year,” said McLane.

An irrigation system sprays water onto a field in the Shasta Valley outside Gazelle on Thursday, Feb. 10, 2022.

Alexis Robertson, from the Skyelark Ranch in Edgewood near Weed, offered a similar assessment.

“The drought and water situation is certainly changing our strategies for ranching,” said Robertson, shoppers who have grown accustomed to Skyelark lamb, pork and chicken will see less of it this year in area markets. “This year feed prices are extremely high and we have reduced our animal numbers as a result.”

California reservoir levels

  • Gerber — 11%
  • Clear Lake — 15%
  • Upper Klamath Lake — 61%
  • Shasta Lake — 38%
  • Trinity Lake — 33%
  • Oroville Lake — 46%
  • Folsom Lake — 56%

Skip Descant is a freelance journalist. He’s written for newspapers in California, Arkansas, Mississippi and Louisiana. He lives in downtown Yreka.