The cattle are gone.
Hundreds of Mike Giammona’s beef cattle have been shipped to a buyer in Colorado.
Given they are on average 100 pounds underweight, Giammona’s once-a-year paycheck might just be a wash with his expenses.
Had this been a “normal year”, the cattle would still be grazing in the lush green grass in the hillside of his West Marin County ranch near Millerton. Instead, the grass is dry and the ground drier creating perfect fuel for wildfires.
Giammona is not alone. Other coastal cattle ranchers as well as those with grassy spreads nudged up against the hills surrounding the Sacramento and San Joaquin valleys are either thinning or selling their herds.
Cattle are the canaries in the proverbial coal mine when it comes to California droughts.
And judging by what has happened just five months into the second consecutive dry year, this drought is going to be a humdinger.
Lake Oroville — the backbone of the State Water Project whose stored water is diverted as far south as San Diego — is at 50 percent of its historic levels for this time of year.
The news is worse in pockets of Tulare County where receding groundwater is teeing up the likelihood that many private wells of rural residences will join their neighbors whose wells ran dry in the 2012-2016 drought forcing them to rely on trucked in water ever since.
As of June 1, 74.46 percent of California was in extreme drought.
It is worse in all of San Joaquin County except a several mile wide swath across the south that encompasses Ripon. From Manteca, Lathrop, and Tracy all the way to Redding that includes the entire Sacramento Valley the worst possible conditions exist earning the driest designation possible — exceptional drought.
Stanislaus and Merced counties are ranked at extreme drought at this time, which according to the U.S. Drought Monitor says little pasture remains, fire season lasts year-round, water is inadequate for agriculture and reservoirs are extremely low.
To understand what we are up against, you need to follow the right science.
It’s called dendrochronology. It is centered on dating the exact year of tree growth rings to study historic climate and atmospheric conditions.
Carbon dating of old submerged tree trunks at the bottom of lakes in California and through the West points to the sobering truth that the period from the mid-1700s to the mid-1900s, while punctuated with brief periods of droughts, was exceptionally wet.
This coincides with the period when development patterns in California and the rest of the West were established.
The historic data shows mega droughts spanning 50 to 100 years with a few years of respite here and there are the norm.
Not only have we over developed the place we call California based on the ability of precipitation to support it, but we engineered ourselves into a pickle by the massive transference of water from basins where it is more abundant to basins where it isn’t. Without water works siphoning from the Sierra watershed, Colorado River Basin and Owens Valley the odds of Los Angeles County supporting 780,000 residents — the size of San Joaquin — would be extremely dicey. Today LA County has 10.1 million residents.
Los Angeles County despite falling under extreme drought based on how its local precipitation stacks up on an annual basis is not part of Gov. Gavin Newsom’s drought emergency declaration.
That’s because they have stored enough water in their off-stream reservoirs and groundwater recharging from previous years of more abundant snow melt that they imported from out-of-basin to get by for this year. Next year is another matter.
The fact off-stream reservoirs and groundwater recharging is helping urbanized coastal Southern California weather being in extreme drought is a scathing indictment of the slow-moving process to increase off-stream water storage in Northern California in the form of the Sites Reservoir in Colusa County that could have provided 1.5 million plus acre feet of water capture from previous wet years from the most productive precipitation basin in California — the Sacramento River Basin.
Newsom needs to weld his emergency powers with the drought as he has with the COVID-19 pandemic. But that, as they say, is another story.
Making all of this less reassuring ironically is a bit of good news.
Californians, for the most part, have retained some of the necessary water conservation habits learned during the drought that ended five years ago.
Per capita daily water consumption was 108 gallons in 2014. It was 92 gallons last year.
Water use had been slowly improving since the 1975-76 drought ended in all sectors in California from farming and industrial uses to residential. The biggest gains have been from more targeted water applications in agriculture were scarcity and cost are driving factors to residential use.
The residential tricks have been everything from mandating low-flow shower heads to more efficient toilets and washing machines. Those efforts picked up steam in part thanks to the two subsequent drought periods between 1976 and 2012.
What made the biggest impact the last time around is a movement toward native landscaping that is more drought tolerant as well as other forms of xeriscape landscaping. In Southern California alone 160 million square feet of grass was replaced with less thirsty landscaping.
Turf removal — specifically of non-functioning grass at office complexes, in landscape areas around the entrance streets to subdivisions, and even in front yards where lawns are for looks and no other purpose — represents the biggest potential source of water use reduction without slashing farm output needed to feed people or forcing urban water rationing.
To understand why this is a big issue for the Central Valley all you have to do is look at the numbers.
Based on the latest numbers, the Bay Area per capita residential daily water use is 72 gallons, it’s 86 gallons in Southern California, and in the Central Valley stretching between Redding and Bakersfield depending upon the city or town it’s between 125 and 136 gallons.
The difference is clearly driven by climate and development patterns.
It is much cooler and the air has more moisture in the Bay Area. While Southern California is the opposite, its development patterns of the last four decades — think River Islands sized lots — for the most part reflects that of the Bay Area.
The last holdouts of tract subdivisions being built with generously sized lots is the Central Valley. The end result of that is we have the average highest per capita residential water use in the state.
That doesn’t mean Los Angeles is without sin. Based on that county’s public works records it is not uncommon for household exceptions where water use soars to between 400 and 4,000 gallons a day.
One way Manteca leaders could encourage homeowners and commercial property owners to take advantage of the city’s turf removal rebate program is to use non-functioning grass areas at the Civic Center complex facing Center Street and Eucalyptus Street as demonstration areas for various forms of drought-resistant landscaping.
They could reach out to landscape companies, set aside specific areas for each one, and give them “x” amount of dollars to work with that they can add to it they wish to create examples of xeriscape landscaping that significantly reduces water waste and is pleasing to the eyes as well.
To encourage them to go beyond the dollar allotment, the city should allow signage that not only describes what was done with each area but to advertise the firm that did the work as well as referencing the city’s turf removal incentive program for homeowners and businesses.
It is a way to go after the low hanging fruit that will prove essential if we are to weather not just this drought but others in our future.