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As California is facing increasing drought conditions, there is serious concern as to how the lack of water will affect our food supply in the near and distant future.  Farmers and ranchers throughout the state have been vocal in their dissatisfaction of conservation measures for many years as government officials seek to ensure that there is enough water to supply everyone’s needs. 

Here in Nevada County, we have several farms and ranches that are trying to find ways to keep their operations afloat as the water table diminishes.  Nevada Irrigation District, which manages the majority of our local water supply, has been undergoing a public collaboration process titled “The Plan for Water” to determine the best ways to meet the community’s demand for water over the coming decades.  The process will include a review of NID’s available water supply and the long-term impacts on varying water demands through an 11-stage process that will address questions and concerns to create a 50-year water plan for the region. “When complete, the Plan will show how future supply and demand scenarios may be integrated into the District’s water management practices to ensure the community enjoys the same high-quality water and reliable water system it has now and for the past 100 years,” their website states.

California Farm Bureau advocates at the state and federal level for all farmers’ and ranchers’ water rights.  The non-governmental, nonprofit, voluntary membership corporation’s purpose is to protect and promote agricultural interests throughout the state of California and to find solutions to the problems of the farm, the farm home, and the rural community. They held a statewide water conference in the beginning of the year, attended by State Water Resource Board, Northern California Water Association, and Farm Bureau leaders.  The local chapter, Nevada County Farm Bureau, has been working with the statewide coalition to identify the biggest concerns of local farmers and ranchers and advocating on their behalf.

“Nevada County Farm Bureau has been involved all year with the NID Plan for Water by attending meetings and speaking for our local farmers and ranchers,” said Deborah Totoonchie, Nevada County Farm Bureau (NCFB) Manager.  “We were integral in starting up a stakeholder group called Nevada-Placer Farm Water Coalition, which canvassed agricultural water users in both counties to learn about their primary concerns during this third year of drought.  This info was relayed to NID, our local irrigation district.”

This year, local farmers and ranchers have responded to the drought by planning for crops to finish earlier in the season and increasing the efficiency of their irrigation by going to in-ground moisture sensors, micro irrigation, and crops that can do well with less water. Super Tuber Farm grows 12-acres of certified Organic vegetables in Grass Valley. According to owner Jeremy Mineau, “99.99% of our water for crop production comes from NID. The creation of the Nevada-Placer Farm Water Coalition has given us a voice to express our unique needs as irrigation water customers.”

Totoonchie states that NCFB learned through this process that the primary concerns of our local farmers and ranchers regarding drought are that they need reliable and affordable water in order to produce food and fiber locally available to consumers. Also, with climate change patterns giving us a longer dry season in the fall, they need the irrigation extended past the customary October 15 water cut off.

Ranches have reduced herd counts in response to higher feed costs brought on by drought and increased transportation costs and in order to preserve their perennial pastures.  “Perennial pasture takes many years to develop and needs to be preserved. Often irrigated pastureland is using Nevada County ag land that wouldn’t be conducive to row crops or orchards. It also has the benefit of green belt firebreaks within our communities and defensible open land in the case of fire” Totoonchie explained.

Dan Macon, Placer-Nevada, Sutter and Yuba Unit Livestock and Natural Resources Advisor for UC Davis, suggests that ranchers develop a resiliency plan for drought conditions.  He teaches that from a ranching perspective, resiliency has four elements.  Macon explains that as long-term businesses (even multi-generational in many cases), ranches must have:

1. Financial Resilience, which includes taking into account the added expenses and lower incomes typical of drought so that businesses are able to regain a sound financial footing quickly. 2. Genetic Resilience that will allow the genetic base of the flock or herd to remain intact and so the rancher will be able to re-stock with animals that fit their ranches.  

3. Ecological Resilience to mitigate the stress for our rangelands. Taking care of the land now helps ensure that our rangelands can respond quickly when “normal” weather returns.

4. Human Resilience, necessary to see through the challenges posed by drought and to stay positive about the future, which allows us to focus on the other elements of resilience.

 “There are several ways we can incorporate the idea of resiliency into our drought planning. From a proactive standpoint, we can take steps to be sure we understand the economics of our ranching businesses. What are the financial risks? What does it cost to run a cow or a ewe for a year under normal conditions? How much debt do we have?” Macon suggests.  “Drought can be a stressful time – and not just financially. But having a plan helps reduce my stress level.”

UC Davis has an ever-evolving Drought Condition Monitoring Observations Report (CMOR) to document drought impacts, report drought duration and affected areas, and share images of impact. Providing real-time, on-the-ground information helps inform the U.S. Drought Monitor’s weekly map of drought conditions. To view current drought conditions, or to report impacts to your farm or ranch, visit rangelands.ucdavis.edu/drought.

For more information or to get involved, sign up online on the Food Policy Council website page at: www.sierraharvest.org/connect/food-policy-council/. Read the Food System Assessment here: www.sierraharvest.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/01/FSA-2020_011121.pdf