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Sonoma County dairies forced to reckon with drought conditions

Where he stood, Don DeBernardi should have been waist-high in water.

Instead, the Two Rock dairyman kicked the cracked carpet of mud beneath his feet, and pointed to the marker above his head. That’s where the water should be lapping in his reservoir, which is large enough to hold more than a dozen football fields.

“I have never seen it like this,” he said Monday morning, turning to look out across the valley that unfolds from his 3,000-acres along Tomales Point Road. “They call this the dairy belt out here. But when we don’t have water, well this ain’t too much of a dairy belt.”

In Two Rock Valley, a bucolic expanse west of Petaluma near the Marin County line, the lack of rain is pummeling farmers like DeBernardi. Without any groundwater, many of the valley’s dairies rely on rainwater to keep their multi-generational businesses afloat.

DeBernardi says he needs about 40,000 gallons a day to water his 700 milking cows. Within two months, he won’t have enough in his reservoirs to keep going.

“You keep thinking, it’s gotta rain, it’s gotta rain,” he said. “But then, even if we get some rain in April, it won’t be enough.”

More than half the county is in a severe drought, according to the most recent figures compiled by the National Integrated Drought Information System, while the rest of the county is in a moderate drought.

As a result, dryland pasture growth is stunted while stock ponds and creeks are lower than usual. In the hardest hit regions, farmers are already scrambling to find ways to secure water, months before the official beginning of summer.

DeBernardi says he’s preparing to start hauling water to his farm in the coming weeks, joining a handful of other dairies forced to find ways to meet their basic water needs as the county edges out of the rainy season with emptied ponds.

He says he thinks he’ll be able to take this business through the dry patch, but worries about the financial burdens to purchase water, tankers and extra employees.

Tawny Tesconi, executive director of Sonoma County Farm Bureau, says she’s expecting a difficult year for the county’s farming and agricultural community, reading future hardship in the Petaluma Valley’s rolling hills.

“Right now, when you look around at Sonoma County, it looks green,” Tesconi said. “But really, the grass is only a few inches tall where it should be several feet tall. Without a lot more rain, we’re going to see that all dry up real quickly. And that’s something we’re always concerned about.”

Officials with the Sonoma County Water Agency say Lake Sonoma and Lake Mendocino are at historically low levels following two consecutive dry years, while the Russian River basin is experiencing a second year of severely below-average rainfall.

County residents will likely soon be asked to voluntarily conserve water, agency representatives say, and there remains a potential for mandatory conservation measures down the road.

The state as a whole is also headed into an exceptionally dry summer, with more than 99% ranking as abnormally dry or at moderate to exceptional drought, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor.

Although state leaders have not yet officially declared a drought, local officials say that hydrologic conditions are more severe than the drought of 2013-14, which led Gov. Jerry Brown to declare a state of emergency and issue mandatory water use restrictions for the first time in California’s history.

Neighboring Marin County declared a drought mid-February, and is asking residents there to conserve water.

Sonoma County Supervisor David Rabbitt said discussions are ongoing at the county level to assess current water levels, and he said he expects the board of supervisors may face the prospect of a drought declaration early May.

“We are in the midst of the two driest years in 50 years’ time,” said Rabbitt, who is also liaison to the county’s Water Advisory Committee. “We hope for some rain in the next so many weeks, but we don’t think it will be significant. We are asking people to voluntarily conserve water and we will probably end up in mandatory conservation if nothing changes by the beginning of summer.”

For some Petaluma-area farmers, the water crisis began months ago.

Just down the road from the DeBernardi farm, the McIsaac clan has been hauling water from the city since last year, their reservoirs nearly emptied after two consecutive years of insufficient rains.

The elder Neil McIsaac, who began the family-run Neil McIsaac & Son dairy on the Sonoma-Marin County line in 1973, says he’s never seen the valley so dry.

The reservoir that has nourished his business for decades, now managed by his son Neil McIsaac III, is useless to them for the first time since the dry spell of 1976-77. The last time the McIsaacs had to haul in water was during the statewide 2014 drought – but those daily trips lasted only three months until rain came again.

“We ran dry Aug. 3, 2020. That’s when we started hauling,” Neil McIsaac III said.

His nights have been overtaken by the extra labor since.

At 11:30 p.m., he hops into his truck, and spends three hours hauling a water trailer from the farm on Tomales Petaluma Road to the north end of the city to hook up to a metered hydrant. The midnight run allows him to duck traffic, he said, and gets him back to the farm in time for a quick nap before feeding the cows at dawn.

Each day he makes three trips lugging 6,700 gallons to water his 300 milking cows. But as the weather turns warmer, he says he’s expecting he’ll have to start bringing more water back. That means more trips, more money and less time to do much else.

“This is very scary,” he said. “I told my wife and my kids that I don’t know how we’re going to withstand this. We are absorbing this cost. I’ve been selling cows and downsizing because of the rain. I’ve been telling my kids, this may not be the business to be in anymore.”

With some dairy owners and workers already taking multiple trips a day to purchase and haul water from the city, Mayor Teresa Barrett said it’s imperative that the city start to think about how to better conserve water.

And after a dry year in the 2019-20 season, local and regional leaders alike are expressing heightened alarm about what the next few months will bring, while insisting that it’s time for long-term strategies.

Barrett recently signed on to a nationwide campaign encouraging residents to conserve water, noting that further restrictions might be on the horizon.

“I think it’s really important for people in Petaluma to realize that farmers are using Petaluma water, and we don’t want them to go out of business because they can’t get water,” Barrett said. “We need to work together, we need to help each other out by saving water.”

It’s a collaborative approach that Neil McIsaac III also urged, expressing concern that a shortage of water may lead to an ‘us’ versus ‘them’ mentality.

“People need to know that this is going to affect everyone, period,” Neil McIsaac III said. “If you live in town, if you live in the country. It’s not just us dairies, it’s everyone.”

(Contact Kathryn Palmer at kathryn.palmer@arguscourier.com, on Twitter @KathrynPlmr.)

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